Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Tracy Candido

For over two years, I received e-mails from Sweet Tooth of the Tiger inviting me to various gallery exhibitions and art events.  The invitations always said that homemade baked goods would be offered in exchange for a small donation.  If you've ever attended an art opening, you know that the food, if there is any, is rarely good.  It seemed smart to butter people up with butter.  And sugar.  But I also imagined some people being confused or freaked out by this simple act.  Tracy Candido, the force behind this project, had found a way to talk about the complex relationship between food, art, commerce, and community.  It was part performance art, part old-school social networking, and I thought it was brilliant.  Each time I received an invitation to one of these events I wanted to hop a plane to New York.  I never did. 
Tracy Candido at Community Cooking Club #5 at Etsy in Brooklyn.


Luckily, Tracy has embarked on a series of new projects that sound just as fantastic, so my fantasy about making a spur of the moment trip to New York lives on.  She organizes projects such as the Community Cooking Club, which she describes as "a monthly socially-engaged program that provides opportunities to prepare, cook and eat food".  That's my kind of fun.  I also wish I could participate in her upcoming "Meet and Eat", a multi-sensory tour of contemporary art.  (I can't wait to hear more about that project and I'm hoping to convince Tracy to send photos that I can post on the blog.)  You can also check out her monthly recipe column for 127 Prince, a national online journal discussing the topic of socially-engaged art, for which she is on the editorial board.  

I once sent her a short story for a food zine that hasn't come to fruition... yet.  Oddly enough, it was this story about my "secret recipe" for my grandmother's coconut cake that got me thinking about sharing family recipes in a more public way.  I'm pleased to say that Tracy has contributed her Grandmother's recipe for Ruggulah, which you will find at the end of her questionnaire.  I can't wait to try it out.  Thanks, Tracy!

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire
1. 
What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
I have so many favorite foods for different reasons, but when narrowing it down to just one, I'd choose my dad's spaghetti sauce and meatballs with Savino's handmade fuscilli.  The recipe for the sauce is about 80 years old and is passed down from my Sicilian grandmother, who still makes the sauce occassionally.  The secret ingredient is a ton of basil, added at the end and simmered with the sauce.  Recently, I visited my dad and he taught me how to make the sauce and the meatballs.  He has all of these neat chef tricks that help create the most tender, fragrant and tasty meatballs ever.  I used the sauce that I made with him for a public spaghetti dinner at a pub around the corner from my house in Greenpoint (Brooklyn) and experimented with local pasta from Savino's.  I ordered 7 pounds of fuscilli at the tiny family run pork store and had to come back later in the afternoon because they had to make it- that's how fresh their pasta is.  It's so light and tender yet chewy and has a wonderful taste.

2. 
What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
I really like to bake more than I like to cook.  Cooking is easy; once you learn what flavors taste good together, eventually you can just make something out of nothing.  Baking is more of a challenge for me because of the precise nature of it.  My favorite thing I like to bake would probably be my grandmother's cinnamon-sugar-walnut ruggulah.  It should be clear at this point that I'm highly sentimental!  Everytime I use the recipes that family members have passed down to me, memories of eating and sharing food with them come to mind.  My grandmother (on my mom's side) taught me how to make ruggulah when I was about 7 years old.  The dough is formed with your hands, so she let me squish and wiggle my fingers in the dough.  When I make the cookies now, they're still as sweet and flaky as they were when she made them.  I usually make them around the holidays and give them as gifts to friends.

3. 
Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?
I really love Jennifer Rubell's work.  She's a trained chef but she's also an artist who uses food as a medium.  She does these wonderful interactive dinners that she's showcased at the Brooklyn Museum and at the Performa Biennial in New York, among other places.  I love the way she interprets the visual into the sensual and really plays with the food.  She's also a great chef- everything tastes delicious!  I've used a few of her recipes for the
Community Cooking Club and they're always so tasty and easy.

4. 
What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
My favorite kitchen utensil is probably the whisk.  It's more like a science tool than anything else!  With a couple of strong flicks of the wrist, cream becomes butter.  And what's better than homemade butter?  My roommate is vegan, and when I moved in I couldn't believe that she didn't have a whisk.  And then I realized that besides scrambling eggs and whipping cream, whisks don't really have much of a purpose, do they?

5. 
What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
This weekend I didn't really eat very well!  So I'll mention last weekend: On Saturday I had dinner at The General Greene restaurant in Fort Greene (Brooklyn) and had their incredibly delicious sweet potato soup and their ham and gruyere bread pudding, with a pork slap ale.  On Sunday I made a big bowl of leftover Savino's fuscilli (from my freezer) with Presidente butter (from Normandy- so sweet and creamy and just the right amount of saltiness), Locatelli grated Peccorino-Romano cheese, and freshly ground black pepper.

6. 
When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat?
Yes!  I'm half Italian, growing up with my grandparents and my dad being very rooted in Italian food and tradition.  Almost every Sunday was spent at my grandparent's Brooklyn apartment, waiting for dinner to be served.  It seemed like a thousand aunts, uncles, and cousins magically fit inside this tiny apartment.  Certain things made the dinners special: my grandfather coming to meet us at the outside door to smother us with kisses and bring us inside, the smell of garlic wafting through the hallway, the loud and chaotic yet loving atmosphere in the kitchen.  And there were the rituals: my grandmother setting the last bowl of "macaroni" on the table, my grandfather raising his glass to say "salud" before anyone was allowed to eat, and the most delicious Italian pastries (plus some fruit my grandfather would peel into this beautiful spiral and then force us to eat) displayed and gobbled up at the end of the meal.  When we weren't in Brooklyn for Sunday dinner, we were out in the country in Pennsylvania, visiting my other grandmother (the one who taught me how to make ruggulah) over much quieter suppers of stuffed cabbage, kielbasi and horseraddish, potato pancakes, and apple pie.  After eating we would take a walk up the dirt road to say hello to the dairy cows on the farm at the top of the hill.  A lot of the work that I currently do engages with food memories and with the magical aspects of eating together in groups, and I do believe both of these experiences I had while growing up are heavy influences.

7. 
Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Sadly, I do not have a garden.  I don't even have any house plants!  I really love to garden though, and used to help my mom when I was younger.  She's still very active in the spring and summer and tells me about all of the different kinds of tomatoes she grows.  Having a garden is something I'm looking forward to doing when I don't live in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and have some more outdoor space.

8. 
What is your ultimate food fantasy?
What a great question!  My ultimate food fantasy might be to hold a Community Cooking Club
, which is a monthly socially-engaged program that provides opportunities for friends to prepare, cook and eat food, at the White House.  At the Community Cooking Club events, there is no chef, just recipes, ingredients, and kitchen tools, and the participants teach each other.   We would make Barack's and Michelle's favorite family recipes, together with the whole White House staff, using ingredients from their "organic" garden.

9. 
If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
I would probably want to eat one of those sugar sculptures that were created for kings and queens in the high courts in England in the 16th century.  Apparently they were these beautiful and ornate sculptures but they were meant to be eaten, and apparently they were very tasty.

10. 
Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is________________."
The most important element of a good meal is "people to share it with."  And "salt."





Ruggulah
by Tracy Candido


1.  Cookie Dough
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 8 oz. cream cheese (room temperature)
Mix the above ingredients with hands in a bowl and shape into a ball.  Divide the ball into 4 small balls.  Wrap each ball in wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours.

2.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease cookie sheets.

3.  Filling
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup raisins
Combine above ingredients in a bowl.

4.  Remove one dough ball from refrigerator (work one ball at a time).  Let stand for 15 minutes.  Flour a board and rolling pin and a pastry cloth.  Roll ball into a circle 1/4 inch thick.  Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut into 8 triangular slices.  Sprinkle filling over circle, remembering that that filling has to last for 4 balls.  Roll up like crescent rolls starting from outside and working toward the center of the circle.  Place on cookie sheet and bake for 15 - 20 minutes depending on your oven temperature.  When they start to brown take them out.  Let cool for 1 minute, then roll each cookie in plan sugar and cool completely. Repeat step 4 for the other 3 balls.