Super Sunday

We’re putting together our menu and shopping list for our big Super Bowl party this coming weekend, but we wanted to give you a sneak preview.

Copyright © 2009, Skip Lombardi

Above are two versions of Stromboli: Genoa, Pepperoni & Provolone, and Spinach & Mozarella. We cooked these for our big Inaugural Party last week, but they will undoubtedly make an encore appearance on Sunday.

As we think about it, though, ‘Super Bowl Party’ may be a bit of a stretch. We don’t own a television, and neither of us are 100% certain who’s playing. But we will have some company, and we will prepare a festive meal, then perhaps walk to a nearby sports bar to watch the commercials.

Stay tuned.

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce

Here is my grandmother’s basic tomato sauce. This is the one she always seemed to have on hand “just to color” slices of sautéed zucchini, mix into a pot of beans, or spoon over pasta.

During the summer, she and my grandfather would put up gallons of tomatoes, but when her larder ran out, she wasn’t at all averse to using commercially canned tomatoes. However, with those, she claimed that adding a grated carrot sweetened the sauce and took away the metalic, “canned” taste.

We recently got some affirmation of my grandmother’s practice from a surprising source, the former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. In his book, Politics and Pasta, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci talked about his own marinara sauce, devoloped to raise money for local scholarships.

“I created the Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce in the early 1990’s as something to sell at a fund-raiser. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. I made it with the owners of the West Valley Inn. We put in a little of this, some of that, added a pinch of whatever; we just kept experimenting. I wanted it to taste just like the sauce my aunts would make on Sunday afternoons so many years earlier. Their sauce would simmer on the stove for hours as they occasionally added their own ingredients until it was slightly better than perfect. But whatever I added, we couldn’t get it exactly right—until the Old Canteen’s Joe Marzilli suggested we had to add carrots to take away the acidity. Once we did that, hmmmmm, it was perfect.”

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce


Olive oil
4 Cloves garlic, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 28 Oz. Cans peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 Small carrot, grated
1/2 tsp. Peperoncino (hot red pepper flakes)
4 Tbs. Fresh basil leaves, torn
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/4 Cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt & freshly ground black pepper


Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic. With a wooden spoon, stir for about one minute, until the garlic begins to give up its aroma.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the tomatoes and their liquid. Return the pan to the heat and begin to break up the tomatoes with either the back of a fork or the wooden spoon. Simmer the tomatoes to evaporate some of their liquid, then add the carrot, the red pepper flakes, basil, and oregano, .

Simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the clear liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Add the parsley and the remaining 2 Tbs. of basil. Cool a spoonful of the sauce and taste for salt and pepper.

Makes approximately 6 Cups (1 1/2 Quarts).


In the days leading up to La Cena della Vigilia, the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, Italian-American families gather to produce a dizzying array of sweets. Among them are giugiulena (joo-joo-LEH-nah), sesame-almond candies that stand as testament to Sicily’s history as a cultural junction.

Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

The island’s benign climate and central Mediterranean location attracted myriad Europeans, among them Crusaders reluctant to return to the drafty mead halls of northern Europe. In the East, European adventurers had tasted more than sesame; their campaigns in the Holy Land had brought them into contact with sophisticated Arab urban cultures. Meanwhile, Arabs had settled across North Africa and in nearby Sicily, where they introduced new crops and cultivation techniques. The Muslims of the late medieval period enjoyed peaceful participation in a polyglot society that included Jews and Christian Italians, Greeks, Normans, English, Germans, and Catalans.

Giugiulena: the Sicilian name intrigued us, and we suspected an Arabic origin even though the contemporary Arabic simsim and Italian sesamo are clear cousins. We found a clue, but no obvious answer, in the modern Spanish, ajonjoli… So we emailed our friend, fellow food-historian and linguist, Charles Perry, a longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Charles replied that both ajonjoli and giugiulena are from a less common medieval Arabic name for sesame—juljulaan. He wrote, “I’ve often wondered whether juljulaan is connected somehow with juljul, which means a small bell—a jingle bell? … al-jonjoliin was the current word in Moorish Spain. Hence, the Spanish word for sesame, ajonjoli.”

(As an aside here, we should say that Charles is one of the few people we know who can truthfully say he’s often wondered about the origin of an archaic word for sesame…)

Sesame Flower
Photo courtesy of Nagraj Salian

But—Charles had given us the final clue… We are gardeners, and one of us has studied plant taxonomy. So, if you happen to know what a sesame blossom looks like and if you’ve ever heard how a dry sesame seed-capsule rattles, then it’s obvious that medieval Arabs had a popular name for Sesamum indicum that vividly described two of its most distiguishing characteristics. Juljul…small bell… This photo, of one strain of sesame in the plant’s native India, says it all.

With such a multicultural pedigree, giugiulena strikes us an appropriate sweet to mark a holiday period when everyone should celebrate the prospect of peace, now and in the year ahead.


Italian confectionary has traditionally been the province of women—whether they be the nuns in Italian convents, who still fashion many of the nut-based sweets from the Arab period or the Italian-American nonnas, mamas, aunts, and children gathering to make hundreds of canali, biscotti, crescenti, amaretti, and struffoli along with these jawbreakers.*

* Variations of giugiulena are widespread throughout the Mediterranean. This recipe could be described as authentically Italian, as opposed to Italian-American. However, in much of the Mediterranean, the bitter almond extract included below would be superfluous. Almond trees in the Mediterranean produce a higher percentage of bitter almonds (the taste Americans would associate with amaretto liqueur), and thus, the Americanized version counts on an extract to impart that top-note. In addition, instead of vanilla and/or the brandy, an Italian might add a few drops of grappa.

Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

Although we’ve expanded the cooking instructions, this recipe is faithful to the well-used index card in the photo. It comes from Angela Munno by way of Jo-Ann Carta, both of Middletown, Connecticut.


1/2 Lb. Whole shelled almonds
1 Lb. Sesame seeds
1 1/4 Cup Honey (10 oz.)
1 Cup Sugar
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Vanilla extract
1 tsp Almond extract
Grated rind of 1 Tangerine
1 — 2 oz. Brandy—optional


Preheat the oven to 300 F. (We use a toaster oven. If you do, stay close by to watch the almonds so they do not burn.)

Spread the almonds out on a sheet pan and place in the middle shelf of the oven. Toast for approximately 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the sesame seeds. In a dry pan, toast the seeds, stirring occasionally, for approximately 15 minutes, until they begin to give off a toasted aroma. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Place a 3 or 4 quart saucepan over medium-high heat and add the honey. Heat the honey until it has become liquid. Stir in the sugar to dissolve and, when the mixture begins to boil, lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, for 7 — 8 minutes—no longer. The mixture will be golden-brown in color.

Add all the sesame seeds and almonds, stirring constantly for a few minutes to incorporate them with the honey-sugar mixture. Cook for about 7 minutes, stirring regularly. The mixture will become stiff, but keep it moving in the pot. Add cinnamon and grated tangerine skin and cook for an additional 2 — 3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and almond extracts and (optional) brandy. Continue to stir for approximately five minutes as the mixture cools. It will be quite stiff.

Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

Pour and spread onto a wet cutting board and roll flat to a uniform half-inch thickness with a wet rolling pin.

With a sharp, wet knife, cut the candy on the diagonal to make diamond shapes or lozenges*.

* As one more demonstration of how food brings us all together: the word lozenge comes from the Arabic lawz, almond.

Bailout, Italian-Style

Wheels of Parmigiano

Writing about the evolution of Italian food in America, it strikes us that there is one truly Italian ingredient whose iconic status has survived an onslaught of imitations. Parmigiano has remained constant and integral to Italian-American cuisine. And now, the artisanal producers of what Mario Battali has dubbed [sic] “the indisputed king of cheeses” are in trouble.

Bravo to the Italian government for their plan to subsidize Parmigiano-makers. We also promise to do our part…this is our kind of bailout.

Wall Street Journal Article

Story on NPR