Easter at my parents’ house this year was a culinary reenactment of the Civil War.Mom’s from New Jersey and my dad’s from Pittsburgh.  Jersey was also represented in her sister, Aunt Polly, and her brother and my Godfather, Uncle Sammy, and his wife Candy.My brother was born in Mobile, and his wife and daughters are NC born and bred.  Petey’s from a long line of Tar heels, and The Kid is 100% pure Durham. But, it was the food which starkly illustrated the North/South divide.

After decades of living in the south, Mom’s Easter spread was as traditional as seersucker and magnolia.  Ham, turkey, potato salad, baked macaroni and cheese, and all the other Dixie dishes you’d expect.

Then Uncle Sammy and Aunt Sandy arrived.  Maybe it’s a Jersey thing, but Sandy is also a lifelong member of the “OMG, what if there’s not enough food?” club, just like my mother.  She brought in piping hot pans of the kind of grub you’d get at a Yankee Easter spread.First up was ziti.  Ziti is the ham biscuit of the northern states.  Whenever there is any occurrence that necessitates the bringing of food; funerals, sickness, babies, there are pans of ziti.  Every well-stocked freezer has a pan or two; ready to go in the oven, or out the door.Although ziti is also a pasta shape the type of noodle in a pan of ziti is cook’s choice.  Both my aunt and mother favor rigatoni.  But I’ve made it with everything from actual ziti, to my fave, cavatappi; a long corkscrew-shaped, ridged tube.

Because I’m no fan of red sauce, I make ziti with my pink sauce.  But Candy’s dish is made with her own red sauce recipe, and was really tasty.  I asked her for the recipe, and she generously complied.

The second dish was stuffed zucchini.  I really liked it, but when I asked for this recipe, my suavity was turned up to 11.  I said, “I wasn’t expecting much, but I loved it…uh, I mean, uh…”.  Luckily, she’s met me and doesn’t really expect me to display a whole lotta tact and diplomacy, so she gave me this recipe, as well.Candy’s last dish was simply very thinly sliced kielbasa slow-cooked with sauerkraut in a crock pot.  It was amazing by itself, but it would be a revelation heaped onto a warm pretzel bun and slathered with mustard.

So the Easter dinner fare may have resembled a food-based dichotomy of the novel, North and South, but once we sat down to eat, it quickly transformed into an equal opportunity Appomattox. Because at that point, we all surrendered—to flavor.

Thanks for your time.

Easter zitisandy's ziti

2-28 ounce cans of tomato puree

2-28 ounce cans tomato sauce

2-28 ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained and run through food processor

1 teaspoon each, dried oregano and dried thyme

1 tablespoon dehydrated garlic

5 links sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

24 ounces tubed pasta, uncooked

Cook pasta in heavily salted water 2-3 minutes less than directions state (you want the noodles very, very al dente, so it will hold up to baking without turning to mush).

Place sausage meat in large heavy pot and brown.  Stir in all tomato products.  Add spices and garlic.  Bring to a simmer and season, taste, and re-season if needed.

Stir cooked pasta into sauce, then pour everything into a very large casserole dish.  Cover with foil and bake at 350 for twenty minutes.  Uncover and top with mozzarella cheese.  Bake 40 minutes more or until browned and bubbly.

Let sit at room temp for 15 minutes before service.  Serves 10-12.

Stuffed zucchinistuffed zucchiniPreheat oven to 350.  Slice 7 or 8 zucchini length-wise. Using a spoon scoop out seeds and pulp, and place pulp in a skillet along with ½ diced yellow onion and a spoonful of dehydrated garlic.  Cook in a little butter until the liquid is mostly cooked out and veggies are golden-brown.  Stir in enough Italian-style breadcrumbs to stiffen the stuffing.  Spoon stuffing into zucchini.  Bake uncovered about 40 minutes, until the zucchini is tender, and the stuffing has browned.  Serves 10-12.

Mmm…double starch

The Kid has never been a picky eater. Beets, bananas, and fish sticks are a few of the small list of items that shall not pass my child’s lips.

And there are two one-pot main dishes that are on the no-fly list.  One is a recipe I got from my friend and former boss, Bosco.  It’s a rice, chick pea and hamburger skillet.

The other dish is the scratch-made version of a treat with both rice and short spaghetti shards one might find in San Francisco.  I’ve made it for years; I’ve even written about it before, but the last time I made it, I added a new ingredient. It’s a trick America’s Test Kitchen uses when making quick versions of slow-cooked dishes.  At first blush, it seems like one of those internet hacks that sound like a life-changing miracle, but when actually attempted leaves you with regret, frustration, a wine-stained shoe, a broken bottle, and glass shards embedded in your forehead.

It’s unflavored gelatin.See?  I told you it sounded bizarre.

But hear me out.  When you cook meats very slowly, the collagen eventually dissolves.  That’s what lends the unctuous mouth feel to things like brisket or ribs.  Gelatin’s a protein which comes from collagen.

I’ll never make this without gelatin again; it’s perfect in this dish, or any dish that needs a little silkiness.

San Francisco Cheat-2.0rice a roni1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 pound mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoons rosemary, chopped finely

1 teaspoon dry thyme

1 ¾ cups long grain rice

1-7 ounce bag fideo noodles (found in grocery stores’ Hispanic section)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry or red wine

1 ½ cups thawed shoe peg corn

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

½ cup cold water

Salt and pepper

For broth, whisk together:roni broth

4 cups beef stock

2 teaspoons horseradish

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Splash of mushroom or dark soy

3 bay leaves

Bloom gelatin: stir together gelatin powder and ½ cup cold water.  Set aside.  It will harden into gelled disk.

Turn large heavy pot with lid to medium-high.  Break ground beef into thumb-size pieces and drop into pan.  Season.  Let cook undisturbed until the portion touching the bottom of the pot browns and gets a little crust. 

When the meat is browned all over, remove meat from pan and set aside.  Pour out all but about a tablespoon or so of the fat left.

Add mushrooms, onions, rosemary and thyme.  Cook until liquid has cooked out and veg are caramelized.

Stir in fideo and rice.  Cook, stirring frequently until the rice and pasta have browned a bit.  Stir in tomato paste and let cook for a few minutes. 

Pour in sherry or wine, scraping up any bits on pot bottom.  Let cook until pan is dry.

Pour in broth and put gelatin disk into pot.  Stir until melted and liquid comes to a boil.  Add back the ground beef and stir in corn.  Turn down heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 17-20 minutes or the broth has completely cooked in. Remove from heat, leave covered, and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.  Top each serving with a pat of butter and some snipped chives if desired. 

Serves 6-8.

As far as savory gelatin goes, this beats the pants off those crazy aspics from the fifties, with tomato jello studded with celery, pimento-stuffed olives, and shrimp.

But for the love of Mike, why, oh, why, would they do that to perfectly innocent food and their digestive tracks?Thanks for your time.