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.

From Garden to Table: Time to Get Your Zucchini On!

I love vegetables, especially if they’re fresh from the garden. This year, I can actually say we’ll be enjoying zucchini, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, and sweet corn from our very own garden!

After 20 some years without one, it’s about time.

I have to give my husband all the credit as he did the tilling, planting and tending. In my defense, he’s semi-retired so he has the time to do it. I don’t.

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San Marzano tomatoes from blogger Mel B.’s garden last summer. She blanched, peeled, and froze these in Zip-Loc freezer bags to use in sauces throughout the fall and winter.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet (I can’t wait for BLTs! I also like them sliced with a bit of salt & pepper – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

The zucchini and cucumbers, on the other hand, are growing like crazy! In fact, my husband brought in a giant, blimp of a zucchini the other day. My first thought was, what the heck am I going to do with this?! Since I couldn’t exactly use it as a door stopper, I had to come up with other uses for this humongous summer squash. So, I searched online for recipes featuring zucchini as one of the main ingredients, and found the perfect recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread on allrecipes.com (see recipe below). I figured as long as there’s chocolate in it, my husband and son will eat it (make that devour it!).

Because I had a surplus of the green stuff, I made a double batch. I kept one cake-size pan of it at home and brought a loaf in to work to share. I must admit I’m not much of a baker (I don’t have the patience and usually make a huge mess in the kitchen), but I’m proud to say my zucchini bread was a big hit with both my family and co-workers.

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Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Ingredients
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate until melted. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.
2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2015 Allrecipes.com

This is my own recipe for a super-easy side dish you can whip up using fresh zucchini and tomatoes.

Zucchini & Tomato Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 medium-size zucchini, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
Italian seasoning (basil & oregano) to taste

Directions: In large skillet, sauté zucchini, tomatoes and onions in hot olive oil for 5 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Stir to coat well. Serve hot.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

This is a recipe that Smart Perks blogger Mel B. has been enjoying since she was a little girl. It was her grandmother’s recipe.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/lemon juice or vinegar 1/2 tbsp for 1/2 cup milk)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups grated zucchini

Topping: 1/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Directions: Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Pour into 13 x 9 greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle topping over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find fresh zucchini and other healthy, delicious and home-grown produce at your local farmer’s market.

Whether your veggies are the fruits of your labor, or your local grower, enjoy the fresh taste of summer!

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Little dog, big zucchini. Home office dog, Beanie.

Smart Perks Blogger, Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee.