Savory Spare Ribs from Brooklyn

West 11th Street, Brooklyn

West 11th Street, Brooklyn

Now I’m getting a little silly with Google maps and their wild way of getting you an image of a particular building. Snapshots from my past appear with a few key strokes (plus my solid memory of addresses!).

The building in the photo above is the first house I ever lived in. It’s on West 11th Street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. Those two windows on the first floor were my bedroom. It was a railroad apartment…each room right next to the other in a long line. My bedroom, led into my parents’ bedroom, led into the living room/dining room, led into the kitchen and then continued down a long hallway to the bathroom.

My Aunt Mary and Uncle John lived upstairs. They weren’t really my aunt and uncle but that’s how I knew them.  They were friends of my parents — I assume they met because they lived upstairs. But my Aunt Mary became a mentor to my mom (who was a new bride, a new mom) and showed her recipes, gave her tips, and was, in general, there for her.

Mary and John were Sicilian. So the recipes followed suit, but they were also somehow influenced by this New World, this New York, this Brooklyn. Every recipe of Aunt Mary’s is wonderful. And each has lived within my family for years and years and are still reliable favorites.

Here’s her spin on spare ribs or baby back ribs. We made these recently in a cooking class with a menu of  Aunt Mary recipes!

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Braised Pork Ribs w Mustard & Brown Sugar

1 rack of baby back ribs or spare ribs, cut into 2-3 bone pieces

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup vinegar, divided

2-3 bay leaves

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2-3 teaspoons mustard

salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degree F.

Season ribs with salt  & pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Brown ribs until golden on each side. Mix a couple of cups of water with half the vinegar. Pour over ribs and add bay leaves and some hot pepper. Let simmer partially covered for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile mix together the remaining brown sugar and vinegar with the garlic and mustard (add a bit more of any of these ingredients if you lean that way). Season with salt & pepper. Lift out ribs from the cooking liquid and transfer to a foil-lined sheet pan. Coat ribs with the sauce. Cover loosely with foil and bake in oven for 20-30 minutes until tender. Cut ribs into single pieces, pour any remaining sauce over them and serve.

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Ribs-Aunt Mary Style

Deceptively AMAZING!

Here’s my class who are now Aunt Mary Recipe experts (and enjoying all)! We also made Aunt Mary’s Baked Rice w Mushrooms & Celery, and Vanilla Cupcakes w Chocolate-Espresso Icing.

Cooking Class for Aunt Mary Recipes

Cooking Class for Aunt Mary Recipes

Where My Spaghetti Frittata Came From

My Apartment Building in Trastevere

My Apartment Building in Trastevere

I just entered the address I lived at in Rome and got a street-view image from Google. That is so wacky!

I lived there many years ago with a Roman woman named Enrica (at first she was Grazia, but then changed her name to Enrica). She became like a sister to me. Enrica grew up in Rome then moved out of her parents’ house when she was 17 to live on her own. In those days (and maybe even these days) nobody did that. You leave your parents’ home when you get married. Even her brother who got divorced moved back in with his parents.

Enrica’s parents disowned her because of that independent move. But they eventually re-owned her. She was a suffering free spirit if you can imagine that. But we knew how to giggle together all night long.

We’d go on walks at midnight through Trastevere’s small streets. She’d know friends to visit at that hour and we’d enter homes with full, but quiet, parties in deep conversation, music playing, cigarettes smoking, giggling.

Enrica wasn’t an avid cook, but there are a few dishes she made without thinking that really stuck with me. Spaghetti Frittata is one of them.

Spaghetti Frittata

Spaghetti Frittata

At first I couldn’t imagine that it could be any good. But one day she mixed up a couple of eggs with last night’s spaghetti (sauce and all), put it in a frying pan with olive oil and suddenly it turned into a round perfect “cake”…and the taste: oh, yeah…nothing crazy about this idea. Try it!!

Spaghetti Frittata

4-5 large eggs

about 2 cups leftover spaghetti, already sauced (any sauce)

¼ cup grated cheese (pecorino or parmigiano)

salt & pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven broiler.

Lightly beat the eggs in a medium mixing bowl. Add spaghetti and cheese. Season with salt & pepper. Mix well.

Use a medium-sized skillet with a metal handle. Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat until hot. Add the egg mixture and spread out to evenly cover skillet. Lower heat to medium and let cook until the bottom is set. Place skillet in oven under broiler for about 4 minutes until golden.

IMPORTANT: remember to use a potholder when taking out the skillet…it’s easy to forget you have an oven-hot skillet and just grab the handle as if it was on the stove. After skillet is out of oven, leave pot holder on handle as a reminder.

Loosen frittata with a spatula and slide onto a dinner-sized plate. Cut in wedges like a pizza. Serve warm or at room temperature.

See what I mean?

Here’s earlier me in always-earlier-than-most-cities (by 2000 years) Rome:

with some nuns at the Trevi Fountain

with some nuns at the Trevi Fountain

donning my disguise in front of a garlic truck

donning my disguise in front of a garlic truck

Fav Nashville Eats: Wendell Smith’s

Wendell Smith's

Wendell Smith’s

If a place has some character, serves good food (read: GOOD food…not necessarily complicated food, but GOOD), and the prices are reasonable…it gets my attention. Sure I love to sample what chefs create, but if I’m not in a sampling mood and just want something comfy and consistent and in an atmosphere where I relax easily…then I go to the ole reliables.

I lived in NYC for many years and one of my all-time favorite reliables was the local diner. Any one of them!

Malibu Diner in NYC

Malibu Diner in NYC

NY diners are usually run by Greeks with a menu that includes some Greek specialties, but the big draw for me was the all-day/all-night breakfast. Sure they had classic sandwiches, big burgers, a zillion salads, sometimes even lobster tails, steak, plus a lit-up carousel filled with mile-high cakes and pies (these I never ordered) (too much sweet for my timid sweet tooth). Gimme the eggs; I want the home fries.

Here in Nashville, diners aren’t on every other corner like they (used to be) in NYC (even there, they’re disappearing). But I’ve happily connected to 3 restaurants that do the diner thing and THEN SOME.

Today I’ll just start with one. Wendell Smith’s. To say I’ve discovered Wendell Smith’s just goes to show you what a Nashville greenhorn I am. When you walk into Wendell Smith’s for the first time you realize everyone in there has been going for YEARS. That maiden visit I almost felt like an intruder. But they greet you friendly enough. And now Wendell’s tickles me every time I walk in their door.

From what I understand the restaurant started in the 1950’s. The place still looks like the 1950’s including some wear and tear from the passage of decades. But that’s all added charm.

Wendell's menus

Wendell’s menus

It used to have a drive-up window that they closed in to add more tables. A friend’s mom and dad met at that drive-up window years ago!

Wendell’s is not necessarily known for its breakfast food. It’s a meat and 3 with a changing daily menu. Their permanent menu has the eggs and omelets, burgers, and sandwiches, and things like tuna-stuffed tomato.

Wendell's cheeseburger

Wendell’s bacon cheeseburger

But I’ve got my favorite breakfast dish and order it almost every time: 2 eggs, scrambled soft, home fries, and sliced tomatoes. (Okay, occasionally I get the cheese omelet.)

Wendell's eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s is big on tomatoes. They ALWAYS  have big, ripe fresh tomatoes on hand. And they sell them by the pound, too.

Local tomatoes by the pound

Local tomatoes by the pound at Wendell’s

On some days they have Polish Sausage on the meat and 3 menu. Duane will always order that. And if their yumfest fried chicken is on the menu I’ll skip my breakfast for that. I also LOVE their turnip greens.

Meat & 2

Meat & 2

Meat & 3 Menu

Meat & 3 Menu

The place gets packed at lunch (when I seem to usually have breakfast) but each time we go there’s a booth available.

Wendell's at lunchtime

Wendell’s at lunchtime

ADDED BONUS: Wendell’s waitresses are the best in town. Serious career waitresses. They already know what we’re gonna order. And we love that feeling of being regulars.

Wendell Smith’s is true Nashville.

Wendell's is Open

Wendell’s is Open



What Makes This Water So Crazy?

The Aisle of Capri

The Aisle of Capri

Acqua Pazza. Translation: Crazy Water.  It’s the name of an Italian fish dish. As in Pesce all’Acqua Pazza. I’d heard of it for years, read recipes, but never cooked or ate it until my traveling group to the Amalfi Coast cooked it up at a local class in Ravello.

Cooking Class in Ravello at Hotel Villa Maria

Cooking Class in Ravello at Hotel Villa Maria

We used branzino in our cooking class at Hotel Villa Maria in Ravello. Fresh as fresh could be. Filleting the whole fish just before slipping it into the flavorful crazy water.

Our chef explaining the fish filleting process

Our chef explaining the fine points of fish filleting to me


I was intrigued through the cooking process and then majorly hooked from the first bite.

Crazy Water in Ravello

Crazy Water in Ravello

Fish in Crazy Water in Ravello

Fish in Crazy Water in Ravello

I had always thought the dish originated in the Veneto because Marcella Hazan seems to be the first Italian cook/chef to introduce it to the US (she lived in Venezia). But it’s really from Campania, and apparently became a very popular dish on the aisle of Capri in the 1960’s.

Story goes that fishermen used sea water with tomatoes and garlic to make a broth for cooking fish. Sounds crazy, no? Maybe cooking with sea water is. But the recipe that evolved from the idea is nicely seasoned fresh water.

At home I use cod or tilapia. But I think any firm fish would work perfectly.

Here’s how to make it for 4-6 medium-sized fish fillets:

In a deep large sauté pan add:

3-4 ripe tomatoes that have been cut into bite-sized chunks

3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & minced or rough-chopped

healthy handful of flat Italian parsley, rough-chopped

healthy pinch of hot pepper, i.e. red pepper flakes or aleppo

3-4 cups water

1/4 cup olive oil or more

Season mixture with salt & pepper. Bring to a boil, then let simmer, partially covered for about an hour. Let the water reduce a bit in the process. I add some lemon juice and lemon zest (from one small-medium lemon), but that’s not in the traditional recipe. I just like lemon!

When the crazy water has simmered and reduced a bit, the ingredients will blend into a beautiful taste and color. Season your fish fillets with salt and pepper, slip them into the broth, cover the pan and let them simmer gently till cooked through — about 10-15 minutes. Done!

Serve in medium (pasta) bowls: a fillet, a couple of ladles of chunky broth, and a slice or two of toasted/or warm/or crunchy bread (I use baguette).

So easy. So healthful. So tasty. And not crazy at all.

Fish in Crazy Water at Home (Tilapia)

Fish in Crazy Water at Home (Tilapia)

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

The first time I went to Pinewood Social I thought they were a little bit too much taken with themselves. Cooler than cool. And when a vibe is off-putting it doesn’t matter how great the menu or mixology is– I’d just rather not be there.

But now time has passed. And the cool sheen has calmed down. And I was out at the theatre with a friend and there weren’t many places open for dinner after 10 pm. So we went to Pinewood…to be Social.

Unfortunately, our dinner plans went awry since our pre-theatre intended-to-be-small appetizer with a drink turned out to be big appetizer. So we weren’t that hungry at 10.  The only menu item at Pinewood Social that appealed to me was apple pie à la mode. Which was “okay.” BUT the drink I ordered (which seemed a good pairing) STOOD OUT (in a good way).

Go get this drink if it’s the only thing you ever order at Pinewood Social.

It’s called: Easy Like Sunday Morning (you can’t help but hum the song in your head as you sip).

It’s a cortado (a coffee I first encountered in Burgos, Spain: espresso with milk in it). To the cortado they add: a healthy dash of Fernet Branca (that herby-bitterish-spiky digestivo) and demerara (a kind of unrefined sugar). It’s served in an on-the-rocks glass with a pretty cappuccino-like milky pattern on top.

THIS DRINK IS DELICIOUS. I have trouble writing about it without wanting to simultaneously drink it.

Sometimes trendy, cool, full of themselves places really come up with great stuff. (And our server was as nice as can be.)

I’ll be back to Pinewood Social. For an Easy Like Sunday Morning. And now I’m curious to sample a different menu item to pair it with. Like maybe the goat cheese omelet, or the lobster roll. Or the smoked trout dip or apple salad. (I sound kinda won over, don’t I?)

What I Buy at Trader Joe’s – Part 1

You knew there would have to be parts to this story. No way you can list all that you get at Trader Joe’s in one sitting. Not only is the list long, but you’re bound to forget something.

Trader Joe’s is not my only go-to shopping food store. Publix is, really. But there are things at Trader Joe’s that you can’t get anywhere else. Well, you can (say, olive oil), but it’s not the same (olive oil).

When I picture myself shopping there I see a fast-moving bee-like dance bouncing from this shelf and that aisle like a fast-moving pinball game. If you see me there you might hear the pings and bells in my wake (watch out– full tilt is possible).

I anticipate my entrance. I know what I’m gonna see first. Bouquets and bouquets of flowers. From $3.99 or $5.99 or somewhere in that price vicinity you can go home with an armful of flowers and beam every time you pass the dining table or the kitchen counter or the bedroom dresser for the rest of the week.

My gotta-go-to areas: produce, cheese, frozen foods, aisle of olives-spices-beans-pasta-rice-oil, nuts & dried fruit (including popcorn, but more on that next time…I’m in a spell of not eating popcorn because so many people I know are breaking teeth on crunchy things and having high dental bills. I’ll wait till the scare passes to buy again Trader Joe’s (popped in) Olive Oil Popcorn…picture to follow eventually).

But here’s a typical $3.99 Trader Joe’s bouquet.

Trader Joe Flowers

Trader Joe Flowers

Why these flowers are in a boot is a long story. Maybe another time…

Here’s a fav frozen food section item: artichoke hearts:

Trader Joe Artichoke Hearts

Trader Joe Artichoke Hearts

These FAR surpass anything you’ll get in a jar or a can. (Except the whole, chargrilled kind you find at counters in Italian supermarkets (in Italy) or sometimes here, too, but usually imported.) These are unflavored (not even that weird acidic taste that canned ones have). So you can do what you will with them. I usually…

RECIPE: Defrost and dry them with paper towels. Dredge them in seasoned flour. Shake off excess. Dip in beaten eggs and fry in a little oil until golden on each side. Try that. You will be FLOORED.

Also in the frozen food aisle: Shrimp Gyoza (Pot Stickers)

Shrimp Pot Stickers

Shrimp Pot Stickers

For the longest time I refused to use the name “pot stickers”…I mean who made that up? Somebody having trouble making dumplings and they stuck to the pot? No reason for these to stick to a pot. Dumplings is a much friendlier (and appetizing) word. (Likewise, if I may mention one of my HUGE pet peeves when it comes to talking about food: “wash it down with____soda, wine, beer” WASH it down? I cannot hear that phrase without imaging the taste of soap. WHO “washes down” their food with a beverage? Extremely ICK.)

If you follow the directions on this package of Trader Joe’s Thai Shrimp Gyoza you will get perfect dumplings and no sticking. I make a dipping sauce of soy sauce and sweet chili sauce mixed together (maybe with a squirt of sriracha). It’s meal in a minute with transport-you-far-away exotic flavor.

These little guys hang on posts here and there throughout the store: sun-dried tomatoes:

Trader Joe's Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Trader Joe’s Sun-Dried Tomatoes

I like these because they are NOT sott’olio which gives them a nice clean taste ready for anything you WANT to add. (You never know what a manufacturer’s oil is gonna taste like, and then they add other flavors you may not want plus some ingredients you can’t pronounce because they have to preserve what they put in the jar.) Ever have sun-dried tomato pesto?

RECIPE: In the bowl of a food processor add a package of sun-dried tomatoes, a garlic clove (peeled & coarsely chopped), a handful of favorite fresh herbs like basil, mint, oregano, and/or sage. Pulse till minced. Add some olive oil (1/4 cup?), salt & pepper. Pulse to smooth. Boil your pasta (capellini, spaghetti, or fettuccine might be nice). Place your pesto in the serving bowl and add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta water (has pasta starch and salt and is a great “ingredient”) to loosen the pesto and make it more “sauce-y” then add your cooked pasta. Toss to coat. Sprinkle with grated parmigiano. Oh. So. Good.

And when I say olive oil, I mean this: I’ve used Trader Joe’s President’s Reserve Extra Virgin Olive oil for years. I use it for everything: frying, sautéing, salads, even a little deep frying (a little…an inch or two in a small pot to just fry up small things like little arancini, small chocolate mini-pies, sage leaves, impromptu tiny zeppoles…nothing large or long-frying with olive oil). I love this oil. I’ve tried others and come back. And for $6.99 a liter it’s a great buy (plus it’s a product of Italy).

Trader Joe's President's Reserve Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Trader Joe’s President’s Reserve Extra Virgin Olive Oil

That’s just the beginning. There’s oh-so-much more. Stay tuned to future notices about my Trader Joe’s favs.

And in the meantime — let me know YOURS!


“Mini” Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad Ingredients

Caprese Salad Ingredients

Actually, this salad can be as big as you’d like. The only “mini” about it is the size of the ingredients in the bowl. Usually Caprese salads are nice big slices of tomatoes and  mozzarella alternating on the plate like a splayed deck of cards (ready for a fancy trick-pick a card, any card…um, queen of tomato?). But this one puts it all in a bowl in bite-sized pieces. You don’t need a knife to eat it (but a fork is useful).

I’m combining the usual Caprese ingredients–tomatoes, mozzarella, basil–with a couple of other ingredients that used to satisfy my after-school snack desires: shallot & dried oregano. A fav dish of mine in that nowhere time zone of school-day-done-and-dinner was cut up tomatoes, diced yellow onion, dried oregano, olive oil and salt & pepper. I can still wolf down that concoction without blinking.

Of course, you know what “Caprese” means? Capri. As in the isle of Capri. Off the coast of Amalfi. One of those wowza places that sings siren songs in your head unexpectedly (like when you’re eating cheerios for breakfast or walking in a parking lot or doing the laundry–events that have nothing to do with the isle of Capri and so that’s its magic: it shows up anywhere).  I was just wandering that island last June. The streets were filled with tourists (doesn’t matter, it’s still phenomenal), the shops were dripping with everything you want to buy, the scenery takes your breath away so you have to stop to breathe every other step. On our approach to Marina Piccola by boat we slipped through the Faraglioni “rock islands” and felt like a visitor to another (beautiful) planet.


Faraglioni, Capri

So if you’re from Capri, you’re Caprese. Tomatoes grow in the south of Italy, mozzarella is made in Campania, which makes this salad “Caprese.”

Here’s how I turn it into “mini”…

Cut up the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces:

Cut tomatoes into bite-sized pieces

tomatoes in bite-sized pieces

Mince shallot (instead of my teenage-hood onion, much more subtle and gentle):

cutting shallot

cutting shallot

Use mini mozzarella balls (bocconcini)…and even these I cut in half:

cutting cheese

cutting cheese

Add fresh basil and/or fresh mint…I tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces:

basil and mint

basil and mint

Dried oregano for that “after-school” zing:

add dried oregano

add dried oregano

Drizzle of olive oil, salt & pepper and you’re in the land of yum…(just shy of the Tyrrhenian Sea by a few thousand miles but your taste buds just might be fooled).

mini Caprese Salad

mini Caprese Salad