Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Foodie Five # 6 - MariElena Baldini Oliverio

MariElena is a longtime friend from Bridgeport, WV. She came into our life first as Kristy's college pal and remained a lifelong friend. There are two funny food memories of Lena I don't refer to....her wedding cake collapsing as she and Joey were about to cut it and me doing the Heimlich maneuver on her as she was choking on a cashew in a country-western bar. She and her Italian family share a wealth of food traditions. Her husband Joey is a member of the well-known Oliverio clan whose myriad branches are involved in everything from peppers to popular restaurants. Between them, food is always prevalent and central to their lives. I briefly referred to her parties and traditions in an earlier post and now Lena fills in the details...

1.) Christmas Eve is also thought of as the vigil to many Italian-Americans and is celebrated with the Feast of Seven Fishes. This is a meatless event typically utilizing seven seafood dishes. Will you and your family be observing this tradition and with what dishes?
I so fondly remember Christmas Eve at my grandparents(my Dad's parents)...I don't know if we had seven differnet types of fish but the menu ALWAYS consisted of: appetizers of olives, shrimp cocktail,salami and what my grandmother called "Kude Ging". It was a fatty, salty cured meat that if you could get past the smell was actually quite addictive...so much for the meatless tradition. Her pronunciation of it was a bastardization of the word but I could never figure out what kind of sausage it was in English! There was always cream cheese stuffed celery sometimes with pineapple and some paprika for color. The first course for dinner would be "Capplets" which in Italian is cappeletti in brodo. It's similar to tortellini and is filled with "pist", a ground meat and cheese cooked in homemade chicken broth. The soup was then served with fresh grated parmeggiano-reggiano cheese and "chapengs", the Italian bread that came from the "cousins in Blyedale"(Blyedale, PA) and looked like a loaf with arms and legs twisted askew. The salad course was next and always green leaf lettuce with tomatoes,onions and oil and vineagar dressing. The main course consisted of baked fish and for most of my young life, fried smelts which were always done in the garage as they would stink up the house. There was also sauteed scallops and sometimes cooked shrimp. The sides were typically what my sister and I call "heart attack in a dish" a.k.a. Gratin Dauphinois which were sliced paper thin potatoes and onions with butter and swiss cheese with heavy cream poured over and baked. There has also been broccoli casserole, glazed carrots and whatever green vegetable may appear depending on who is making it. Dessert would always consisted of "Mrs. Minutell's rice cake" which was actually a rice pie baked by Mrs. Minutelli...my grandmother always dropped off the ends of words. The rice is cooked in milk with sugar and lemon zest in a sweetened crust and baked. It's one of my holiday favorites. The other favorite remains strawberry jello with vanilla ice cream. Family favorite cookies were nut rolls made by my grandmother and everyone knew them as "cold doughs." There were also Italian cookies that were dough strips deep fried and covered in honey. All of this at an impeccably set table with fresh linens and fine china.
Joey's family on Christmas Eve makes a sauerkraut soup that is served with mashed potatoes. This soup in a Slovak tradition and has meaning referring to the "bitter suffering" of Christ. I like it, but it's definitely an acquired taste. They also break a wafer drizzled with honey. The matriarch of the family then traces the sign of the cross on your forehead with honey and says a prayer aloud. You eat the wafer with one piece of banana, one of apple and one orange segment. All of this is part of Slovak tradition.

2.) I've been lucky enough to have experienced the Italian Heritage Festival in Bridgeport with you. How does your family celebrate this festival in particular and with what foods?
The Italian Heritage Festival has always been a time for family and friend reunions. We often meet during that Labor Day weekend and have a ribeye steak sandwich or a hoagie or pizza. For some reason, the food always tastes so good when you're standing among strangers. Many vendors at the food booths in Clarksburg make frittis. Frittis are as addictive to me as doughnuts are for many people. They are made with a plain bread dough as opposed to sweetened leavened dough. The dough is pulled into a donut shape, deep-fried and rolled in sugar. My husband always makes sure I get a bag of frittis and I have to hide them from everyone.

3.) I've also participated in the classic Baldini events...last-minute thrown together celebrations that turn into gala soirees. Can you give me an example of these parties?
Kristy has always been amazed by how I can turn my house around and get food ready(with her help and chastising)for any party I've had. One of the most memorable was the after-Thanksgiving party that I held at my Mom's house that you attended. Fueled by beer, Kristy and I prepared the food for this impromptu party. With your help, we started preparing a spinach dip in a bread bowl. We kept tasting and saying,"needs more garlic" until it finally became essentially a garlic dip. Back then in 1987, I like to think we actually invented queso dip in a crock pot- melted Velveeta with salsa....what a novel idea!
It's safe to say the Baldini women-all of us-can fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to quick prepartion and looking composed when the party begins. The innocent partygoer would never know the bedlam and fighting and screaming that was happening prior to their arrival. Kristy has much fodder for the book she will write about being a Baldini "sistah".

4.) Between yours and your husband Joey's families, there's a plethora of family food traditions and dishes. Can you describe some of these? The "caplets" that we have for Christmas are all handmade and my sisters and I have learned how to make them out of necessity in case the "cousins" fall through. My grandmother also made "risote" which we later learned was risotto and she made this in quantity in the summertime. I can remember eating salad, fresh Italian bread with loads of butter and "risote" on the back porch in the sweltering heat with the entire family present and the smell of freshly cut grass in the background. She also made cabbage rolls that were so awesome that my mouth is watering thinking about them. It was probably one of those Campbell's Soup recipes from the 1940's but Gosh, were they good. I make them for my family and when it's been too long since I've made them, they let me know. My husband's family makes a great stuffing for all of the holidays that has Italian bread, sausage and chestnuts in it. That is one thing that I crave during the holidays and I also crave my grandmother's cranberry relish and pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing. I have not mastered the "cold doughs" yet.

5.) What is your ultimate comfort food?
Macaroni and cheese or cabbage rolls would be my comfort go-to. My all-time favorite meal that I usually ask my Mom to make me for my birthday is Southern-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cream gravy with fresh pole beans cooked until they're dead. I'm not usually a cake eater but my favorite cake weakness would be the pumpkin cake. I really prefer fruit desserts like plum tarts and homemade cookies. I would have to say that my all-time weakness if fresh pepperoni rolls still warm from the bakery and fresh Italian bread with butter.

This is a terrific slice of the Baldini life, Lena....thank you!


Ali Keegan said...

This entire piece made me salivate and want to be a part of this family. Nicely done!

Kristy said...

I bet you were just waiting for my post huh LOL. I will assure ALL of your readers that some of the finest food I have ever consumed came over the past 25 years at one of the Baldini homes. Lena and I attended Fairmont State College together for only ONE semester and the cafeteria food I must say was not bad BUT one craves food someone's mother cooked every once in the while. My very first introduction to the Baldini family was Homecoming for Notre Dame High School. We all piled in Lena's car and drove to Bridgeport to her family home where her mother made us stuffed shells and cheese, and homemade bread with REAL BUTTAH! It was at this first meeting that I recognized Sue Baldini's true wisom as she imparted an epicurean philosphy to me that I have always remembered and practice to this day. It is: "The bread is just a vehicle to get the butter to your mouth." We all stuffed ourselves that Friday night and I will say that Sue Baldini is personally responsible for the "freshman fifteen" that I gained.

I have had the utter privilege to attend many many more holiday gatherings and family get togethers at Lena's. They have always believed in the adage "the more the merrier" so for those of you who might wander into north central WV to visit us for the Italian Heritage Festival, attend a college football game or just enjoy the natural beauty of this great state I'm sure Lena wouldn't mind me saying "C'mon over and eat." After all she has the best sous chef in the world...ME LOL.

Lena's caplets are delicious but watching her and her sisters make them is priceless. (Bring your helmets and kevlar if you plan to witness this.) Years of attending "the festival" together remain fond memories for me however I prefer the Italian sausage sandwiches that can be found on every street corner. Each vendor boasts that their's is the best but there are only a couple of vendors that are REALLY good. If ya'll come and see us we will introduce you to them but until then it's our secret. The fritti's are great and don't let Lena fool you. She usually has her husband trudge out in the middle of the night to get them because the first three bags were scarfed up by her 17 yr old son and his pals.

If you attend Thanksgiving at Sue's house do NOT eat the green bean casserole unless Lena's sister Ursula makes it. And for as much as her mother will insist that the bird is not done, trust us, it is. We put so many meat thermometers in that turkey to prove it the bird ends up looking like an alien shishkebob with antennae.

And just a note to my dear friend Lena - you know I HATE that jello and ice cream thing you do so next time I'm there on Christmas Eve I want Mrs. Minutell's rice pie. Sounds yummy.

To Ali Keegan - come on over. You can be a part of that family anytime if you like food. Heck, there's so many of us now they'd never know another one showed up for dinner and we would all love having you there!

Signed Affectionately,
The Fifth Baldini

Kristy said...

P.S. Lena's mac and cheese is TO DIE FOR and I'm sorry I almost let her choke to death on a cashew at The Silver Spur. Thank GAWD you were there to save her Greg.

Kahsha said...

mmm... risote! I could eat that every day. Maybe if I stop working retail I could teach these women how to make cold doughs.
Love the Foodie 5!
Kristy and I need to go on another cruise!

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