Roman Holiday: A Trip to A Local Italian Market

Food is the stuff of life, right?

A good meal not only sustains us, it’s the heart of so many holidays, celebrations, and family get-togethers. The dinner date. Catching up with old friends. The client lunch. Meals are where we make memories, toast to health and happiness, and delight in the most tantalizing of flavors, as well as the fruits of someone’s labor, be it family or a professional chef.

Food reminds me of my heritage and family traditions. I am Serbian, and grew up with my Grandma baking potica, a traditional Serbian sweet bread made with walnuts and honey in a flaky brown and cream-colored spiral, and sarmas, a meat mixture wrapped in cabbage leaves boiled with tomato sauce, sauerkraut and Polish sausage for hours, at every Christmas dinner.

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My family came from a small iron ore-mining town with a large immigrant population and lots of different cultural delicacies. So we enjoyed baklava, spanokopita, porchetta, antipasto, fresh crusty Italian bread, spaetzle, hard salami and delicious salty cheeses.

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Foccacia

Now that my grandparents are gone, and I am living in a different city, I don’t eat the foods of my childhood every day. However, we still make our Serbian sarmas every other Christmas. It’s a big production, but luckily my Grandpa taught us all the little tips and tricks before he passed (like freezing the cabbage beforehand and then boiling the whole head, so the leaves peel off easily and whole).

When my husband and I are both so busy with work, and life is hectic, we just don’t always have the time or energy to shop for fresh ingredients, or spend a lot of time in preparing authentic ethnic cuisine on a weeknight. It’s much easier when a meal comes in a box, and you can just pop it in the oven or microwave. But so much of the heart, soul and emotional symbolism of eating a good meal is lost with this lifestyle.

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As much as I love grocery shopping (I always shop when hungry…gasp…so taboo) at a big chain grocery store, whenever I have the time, I visit my all-time favorite, family-owned, authentic Italian grocer – Cossetta’s. It’s more than a mere grocery run. It’s a full-sensory adventure. 12047167_1229474950412007_5034716741244026546_nThe smells, the bright colors…you’re transported from the neutral palettes of most everyday life.

In the late 1800’s a young man named Michael Cossetta came to St. Paul, Minnesota from Calabria, Italy, and settled in a little Italian neighborhood in St. Paul called the Upper Levee. By 1911, he opened a tiny food market called Cossetta’s, which drew customers from everywhere who appreciated his quality foods and genuine hospitality.11930928_1229474957078673_2699722492694218449_o

Since 1984, Cossetta’s has been known for its award-winning pizza, homemade sauces, handmade Italian sausages and welcoming staff.  Cossetta’s recently celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, and the fourth-generation family decided to expand the tradition to include all the Old World sensations and offerings a customer could experience in Italy without actually traveling there.

It’s about an hour from my house, but well worth the trip. Since I don’t get to Cossetta’s frequently, I like to stock up, and freeze some things. Because everything is so fresh, I can’t help but buy all of the ingredients for at least three nights of Italian meals in a row.

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“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The Godfather

Since most people (like me, with little self-discipline) are too busy devouring their meal to remember to save room for dessert, Cossetta’s has smartly located the impressive Pasticceria — their pastry shop, where you can purchase an authentic cannoli pastry like you would in Sicily— in front of the regular market.

Only after I’ve filled a box with all of my favorite cookies and splurged on a cake, I head to Cossetta’s full Italian Market , featuring everything you need to make an authentic Italian meal, from antipasti to pizza, bracciole to parmigiana, masterpieces with only the best imported or home-grown ingredients. 11998952_1229965397029629_5135466810060602391_nMost of the time, I take shortcuts by buying Cossetta’s freshly made dough and thick, spicy pizza sauce, and then topping with their chewy, salty fresh shredded mozzarella (pronounced Moot-za-relle by my Italian friend from Long Island), which I buy by the quart.12004140_1229474900412012_9185852308898427024_n

It’s so good that sometimes we can’t resist digging in to the shredded cheese before we get home. If I’m not up for cooking, I might take home a chef-prepared meal.

The meat market is full of the freshest cuts of meats with romantic Italian names, straight from Carmela Soprano’s kitchen. I always buy Cossetta’s meatball mix in bulk, pepperoni for our pizzas and sandwiches, hard salami, spicy sausage links for my pasta and gravy (Sauce? What’s that?) several porchettas (a pork roast covered in Italian spices and seasonings), Italian beef roasts, veal cutlets, and thinly cut and rolled bracciole.

12019778_1229475070411995_6510653163129296253_nWe love meatball subs on crusty, demi-baguettes, baked fresh that morning. It’s our first night meal. Meatballs on our baguette, covered in marinara and heaped with mozzarella, with parmesan sprinkled liberally on top, then placed under the broiler. Yummo!

Second night is pizza night.

The first Sunday is a roast. Because Sundays were always the day my Grandma made a roast for the family. And a spicy hot porchetta sandwich with pepperoncini peppers tastes great with a cold beverage and a football game on TV.

I know that Cossetta’s is our own local gem, but if you haven’t found a local ethnic grocer in your area, it’s probably because you haven’t looked. Whether it’s Greek, Mexican, Asian, or Ethiopian, I guarantee you will find a grocery store that will transport you to another place, a vacation destination in your own backyard. Fall is the perfect time to start stocking up for the winter ahead, when you’ll be so glad you have some delicious meals to look forward to.

So go, already! Mangia!

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee,  gained 10 pounds just writing this post.

Five Simple Fall Home Decor Suggestions

Is your home ready for a warm and welcoming fall update? Here are some of my favorite ideas that are fun and festive.

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Growing up in sunny South Florida, I never got to experience the changing of the seasons. For the majority of the year, it was sticky, humid heat, with a few short weeks of low-40s temperatures which necessitated nothing more than a light coat. How I longed for what fall is for the rest of the country: vibrant golden leaves, a brisk chill in the air, roaring fireplaces and chili on the stove! Instead, I settled for decorating my house for fall with my mom. If I couldn’t experience the real thing, I could at least feel like I was.

Starting when I was around 7 years old, every September we would break out our boxes of wreaths, garlands, and centerpieces. Though we couldn’t collect fallen leaves or pretty twigs from the ground outside to incorporate, we did use our standby plastic and fabric imitations, which did the trick. We even have a miniature decorative autumnal-themed village we set up on our living room table, complete with a ceramic general store, thatch-roofed cottage and little red-topped trees!

Even if you’re not the kind of person to go all out, here are some simple ideas that are easy enough to do but have a big, welcoming impact for any visitors your home might have this autumn.

With no further delay, here are our top five ways to decorate your home for fall:

Statement Centerpieces

photo from countryliving.com

photo from countryliving.com

Let’s start with the basics. Nothing says “warm and cozy” like soft candlelight. Your options for candles are nearly endless, but there are some classic styles—candlesticks, pillar candles, tealight and votive candles—we think work particularly well for building a fall vibe.

A fancy candelabra, complete with candlesticks in shades of burnt orange, pale yellow, and soft cream, makes for an elegant talking point at a dinner party, while a glass pedestal with various-size pillar candles on it also does the trick.

Personally, I’m a fan of placing a mix of these kinds of candles in the center of the table, somewhat willy-nilly, and then arranging mini pumpkins and tealight candles around them. The overall effect is just the right amount of sophisticated and fun.

Door Wreaths

Another simple choice is a decorative, fabulous fall wreath. Whether store-bought or homemade, crafted with burlap or boughs, a wreath on the front door is an excellent way to welcome friends and family to your home.

Here’s a great tutorial for 7 DIY fall wreaths. Their suggestions are so creative; one is made from coffee filters, of all things.

photo from wayfair.com

photo from wayfair.com

However, if you’re like me and don’t have the patience for crafting your own, there are great options out there, like the one pictured above.

Glamorous Garlands

Garland RM house of boys

No, not like Judy! Come fall, I like a good garland decorating my sideboard in my dining room. However, if I had a fireplace that would definitely be my go-to garland placement. Garlands strung around a door frame look beautiful, too.

Threaded in between picture frames and votive candles, garlands with gorgeous fall leaves, pine cones and vibrant red berries go a long way in adding fall flair to any setting.

One of the great things about garlands is that you can choose one based on your individual style and home décor, thanks to the wide variety available. From loud, full garlands with bright orange leaves and glitter strands throughout to woven burlap garlands with delicate muslin flowers, there’s really something for everyone out there.

Pumpkins and Gourds, Of Course!

If you have kids, you know there’s nothing they like more than a messy craft when they’re stuck inside on a rainy afternoon! And, really, who doesn’t like playing with glitter once in awhile?

With the corn and tomato crops of summer fading out, we have the autumn harvest of pumpkins and gourds to look forward to…and decorate with! These yummy plants can and should be used for more than just spiced lattes and latticed pies.

photo from thefrugalhomemaker.com

photo from thefrugalhomemaker.com

Since they’re so plentiful in fall, you can get them very cheap, making them an easy solution for arts and crafts. All you need for a fun-filled afternoon is some colorful paint, kid-safe glue, glitter and sequins. And don’t forget the googly eyes!

No kids in the house? No problem. Just arrange the pumpkins in your hearth and on your front porch with an assortment of differently shaped and colored gourds, corn stalks, hay bales or baskets of mums around them to add visual interest.

front door decoration

Decorative Display Cases

Yet another thrifty solution to fall decorations is glass display cases filled with fall-themed trinkets.

Pick out any old glass vase, and then show off things in it like baubles and beads, acorns you’ve found, and fallen leaves. You can even use a small tree branch from outside (just make sure there aren’t any critters on it).

photo from thebudgetdecorator.com

photo from thebudgetdecorator.com

We like this decoration because it’s something you can truly customize. Think outside the box (or vase) and create your own displays with goodies like ripe apples, potpourri with dried pumpkin, or even just cinnamon sticks!

What are some of your favorite fall decoration tips?

photo from tidbitsandtwine.com

photo from tidbitsandtwine.com

Katie U, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys hiking, traveling and cheese, but not necessarily in that order. In her off time you can catch her at a brewery, happily playing a board game or begrudgingly watching sports.

Fall’s Here! How Do You Like Them Apples?

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Photo courtesy of Billie Jo Bylund, http://www.buffaloplaidstudio.com

“There’s something about autumn that wakes up our senses and reminds us to live.”  -unknown

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Photo courtesy of Billie Jo Bylund, http://www.buffaloplaidstudio.com

I know some of you may be mourning the end of summer, but I’m one of those people who actually looks forward to fall. It’s probably my favorite time of the year. In this part of the country, the air is crisp and cool (we call it sweater weather) and the leaves turn to brilliant hues of red, yellow and orange. We even take short road trips just to view the spectacular fall colors. I also like the sound of fallen leaves crunching under my shoes when I go hiking in the woods. And, as crazy as it sounds, I even like to rake them when they pile up in my yard! It’s one way to get outside and burn some calories at the same time! Another great thing about this season… football! I’m a huge fan of the sport and every year I keep hoping our team will finally come through for us. Go Vikings!

Cart full of apples after picking in orchard

Cart full of apples after picking in orchard

But, I must say one of my favorite fall pastimes is picking apples. Over the last 20 or so years, we’ve set aside one Saturday every September to visit the local orchard. It’s evolved into a family tradition of sorts. I’m not sure what I like best about the whole experience – the wagon rides, watching the kids yank fresh apples off the trees, or seeing how many Honeycrisps, Haralsons and Firesides we can cram into 3 or 4 bags. Of course, we have to stop at the gift shop on the way out to sample apple cider and purchase some homemade preserves, apple butter and caramel dip. Suffice it to say we make quite a haul on these apple picking excursions!

The fact is we always end up with way too many apples to fit in our fridge. And, because one can only consume so much fruit in a day, I try to find recipes for anything with apples in them… apple pie, apple crisp, apple fritters, apple strudel, apple cake, apple bars, apple sauce… I’m beginning to sound like that shrimp obsessed character in Forrest Gump!
I’ve included some of my favorite apple recipes here. Give them a shot and I guarantee you and your family will love every bite!

Easy Apple Pie (Makes one 9-inch pie)
Ingredients:
2 Prepared 9-inch pastry shells (one for the top, one for the bottom)
6-7 crisp, tart apples – cored, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. flour
Directions: Preheat oven to 450ºF. In a large bowl, combine sugar, spices and flour with apple slices. Arrange apple slices in center of pastry-lined pie pan; dot with butter. Cover with other pastry shell, press edges together to seal and flute. Cut even slits on top crust to let steam escape. Place pie on the lowest rack in oven and bake at 450ºF for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350ºF and bake for 35-40 minutes longer or until apples are tender and crust is golden brown. Top each slice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or serve with a slice of cheddar cheese, if desired.

Dutch Apple Crisp
Ingredients:
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup melted butter
4 apples, cored, peeled and sliced
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp. corn starch
Directions: Preheat oven to 350ºF. In a large bowl, mix first 5 ingredients together with a pastry cutter or fork until crumbly. Set aside 1 cup for topping and spread the rest in the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan. Arrange apple slices over crumb mixture. In a small saucepan, bring water, sugar and corn starch to a boil and pour over apples. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Bake at 350 ºF for 55 minutes. Serve warm with a dollop of whipped topping or vanilla ice cream.

Check out this awesome recipe for Apple Pie Moonshine, courtesy of my friend Billie Jo. As the name suggests, it tastes just like apple pie! But, I must warn you this stuff really packs a punch! I’m guessing that’s why they call it “moonshine”?

Apple Pie Moonshine
Ingredients:
1-gallon apple cider
1-gallon apple juice
1-1/2 cups white sugar
2-1/2 cups brown sugar
8 cinnamon sticks
1-liter 190-proof grain alcohol.
Directions: Combine juice, cider, sugar and cinnamon and bring to a boil. Let the mixture cool and add the high proof liquor. Makes 9 quarts.

Click here for more fabulous apple recipes.

Here’s to a fun and flavorful fall!
Catherine B.

As much as blogger Cathy B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys a nice fall apple-picking excursion, she prefers a trip to the winery even more!