Minestrone and Tequila and Oscar
My uncle Oscar and I were real close. He was my Dad’s only brother. They grew up poor on the streets of New York City, sons of Italian immigrants. Their Mom, Angela, moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland, when she started organizing the ILGWU—the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Oscar (I called him “Unc”) went to medical school, became a surgeon, and—with a little encouragement from Angela–started a little health care company for the unions that evolved into United HealthCare. Unc made a fortune. He did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it. Started with nothing.
I was just a kid when my folks got divorced. I stayed with my Mom in Baltimore, and my Dad moved back to New York. Unc was like a father to me—he was the guy I turned to in times of trouble, and in the good times, too. Unc was my doctor, my confidant, and my go-to guy.
When I was a stupid teenager, I was at a party that got busted for under-age drinking. I had just walked in, and the cops came in right behind me—I was the first kid they cuffed. Unc was the guy who bailed me out—he and my Mom came and got me. All charges were dropped.
When Unc went out of town, he used to lend me his big new Cadillac Brougham with the blue velour bucket seats and the wide whitewall tires. I’d drive around Baltimore, listening to Tony Bennett on the 8-track.
When I broke up with XF2 (ex-fiancé number two), Unc was the guy I called. He told me to come over, and stay for a while. I ended up staying for a couple years.
Oscar was a great cook. He taught me more about cooking in those few years than I had learned in my whole life. Oscar had gone to Marcella Hazan’s cooking school in Italy. Marcella’s cookbooks on Italian cooking are my favorites, she’s legendary. He took other cooking classes in Italy. Unc had skills.
Oscar taught me all about food during those years. He also taught me a lot about wine. When I was a teenager, I accidentally opened up one of his very rare bottles of 1954 Chateau Mouton Rothschild cabernet when Angela–his Mom, my grandmother—asked me to pour her a glass of wine. Unc had gone out to dinner, but when he got back and found the open bottle, he was very understanding.
“What the hell were you thinking? Have you lost your fucking mind?”
He wasn’t really angry, that’s just the way he talked to me. Lucky me. When I told him the story, he laughed. It didn’t really bother him. Then he told me about the wine. It was the first of many lessons.
Many years later, when I was living with Unc after my break-up with XF2, he went down to Florida for the winter. On my birthday, he called me at his house, and told me to go to the wine cellar and get a bottle of wine for my birthday—any bottle I wanted. I was making dinner for me and Hit Man Howie Z, and I told Howie to go down to Unc’s cellar and get a bottle of whatever he had the most of, figuring that the chances of opening a rare wine would be a whole lot less that way.
Howie brought up a bottle of wine, and told me Unc had two full cases of it—way more than any other. I was busy cooking–I didn’t even look at what kind of wine it was, I just told Howie to open it, which he did. When I looked over at the bottle of wine, my heart sank. It was a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild cabernet. What were the chances of that happening? We drank it—what else could we do? Put the cork back in? It was incredible.
When Unc came back to Baltimore in the spring, I took him wine shopping in Annapolis. We were strolling around the wine store when I saw a bottle of the same wine that Howie had opened. It was $999.99–a thousand bucks a bottle. Unc noticed it and said, “I’ve got two cases of that.”
I said, “Not any more.” I told him the story.
He said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Then he shook his head and laughed. I knew it didn’t make any difference to him—he was as generous as could be. But he always liked to give me a beat-down to keep me in line. Unc had a cellar full of really good wine—but not the kind of wine I was used to drinking. His tastes were a little more refined than mine.
Unc also liked to drink tequila occasionally.
I was in my early twenties, living at my Mom’s house when Unc called me up one night and asked me if I’d ever drank tequila. I told him no. He told me to come over. I told him I’d be right there. You can’t refuse a request from The Godfather.
I had an old Datsun station wagon with rusted out floorboards — you could see the ground below on both the driver’s and the passenger’s side. It was a stick shift and it backfired when you downshifted — sounded just like gunshots.
I got in the car and drove 10 minutes to my uncle’s house. When I walked in, he was standing in his kitchen with a bottle of tequila and two glasses. He poured us each a shot. He gave me a slice of lime. He put some salt on the skin between my thumb and index finger. He told me what to do – lick the salt, drink the shot, and suck the lime. I did. It tasted like turpentine. Smelled like it, too. It tasted like something you might drink after ingesting poison, so you could induce vomiting. It burned going down. My eyes were tearing up, my throat was on fire, and I had an instant headache.
Let’s have another. We stood in the kitchen and drank some more. His wife was upstairs. Smart woman. Good-looking, too. Oscar was a sharp dresser, but that night, he was in his bathrobe. He had no drawers on. How did I know?
Unc was not a modest man. He once got naked and went swimming in the river at his 75th birthday party. There were dozens of people there. He just took off all his clothes and dove in.
Me? I have recurring nightmares about being caught naked in public. I rarely wear short sleeves or shorts. I don’t even wear flip-flops or sandals. When I go to bed at night, I don’t sleep naked. I wear my boxers and an undershirt. Why?
Because if someone breaks into the bedroom and I have to jump out the window, at least I won’t be running down the street naked. But Unc? He didn’t mind who saw him naked. It wasn’t a sexual thing. Unc just didn’t see any problem with letting it all hang out; which he was doing that night.
So there we were, in Unc’s kitchen, drinking shots of tequila, Unc with his bathrobe untied, and I’m starting to feel a little untied myself. Have you ever tried on someone’s eyeglasses, and they’ve got a really strong prescription? And things look really out of focus, and you get a bit of a headache after a few seconds and then feel nauseated?
That’s how I felt. We’d had a couple of shots. I must have looked like a seasick sailor, because Unc was giving me worried glances. That’s when he said, “You don’t look so good. I’ll give you a ride home.”
Oscar loved my Mom, so he welcomed the opportunity to give me a ride home. Why we took my car, I don’t know. Unc always had real nice cars; Cadillacs, Mercedes, Maseratis -why he wanted to drive my old Datsun that backfired and had rusted out floorboards was a mystery. Unc got behind the wheel in just his bathrobe with no drawers on and started the engine. It backfired; sounded like a shotgun blast. I looked over and he had a look of glee in his eyes. He took off.
He had a blast driving that car. Every time he shifted, the car would backfire. BANG! He’d let out a holler and a laugh; and drive on. You could look down through the holes in the floorboards and see the street zipping by. It made me dizzy. I felt sick to my stomach. Unc was having a grand ol’ time.
He pulled up to my Mom’s house, parked on the street out front, and I got out and started staggering up the sidewalk to the front door. Neither my uncle nor I realized his wife had heard us leave his house and was following right behind us. When Unc got out of my car and started following me to the front door, she grabbed him by the back of his bathrobe and pulled him into her car and drove off. I was oblivious. I got to the front door of my Mom’s house, and turned around to let Unc in, and –
He was nowhere to be found. I looked all around, in the bushes, behind the trees, in the car. I couldn’t find him. I was baffled. Where the hell did he go? I looked up and down the street. It was late. It was dark. I walked in the front door and walked into the kitchen.
I woke up the next morning, asleep on the kitchen floor. My head felt like someone was firing staples into my skull. I couldn’t focus my eyes and my mouth felt like several small animals had spent the night in there.
At least I had my clothes on.
After a night of tequila, ain’t nothing like a bowl of minestrone followed by a trip to the Betty Ford Clinic. I made this soup last night. It was the best I ever made, if I may say so myself. A couple things to remember –
Italians don’t use a lot of corn. But I put some in this recipe. Why? Because it tastes really good. I like the texture and the color it adds, too.
Pancetta is Italian bacon. If you are a vegetarian, you can skip the bacon. But I love the flavor it adds. When you cook pancetta, treat it like bacon. Let the pancetta brown on one side. Then give it a stir, and try and get the unbrowned pieces to brown on the other side. If you don’t have pancetta, you can use bacon.
I use fresh oregano. I normally like dried oregano better, but for some reason, fresh tastes best in this recipe, but dried works, too.
The tomatoes need to be smooshed. Open the can, pour them in a bowl, and dig in with your mitts, and squeeze the tomatoes. Remove the yellow center core, and any skin.
The chick peas and the corn are already cooked. All you need to do is heat them up. So add them last.
You can eat this soup as is or you can put some rice or pasta in it.
I used to put the pasta right in the soup and let it cook in there. The only problem was the pasta would end up absorbing all the broth. So now I cook the pasta separately and add it to each individual bowl before serving.
This recipe yields about 20 cups of soup. Which is 5 quarts. I think.
6 ounces pancetta cut into small pieces
¼ cup olive oil plus 2 tablespoons
Crushed red pepper (I start off with ¼ teaspoon)
1 cup each – chopped onion, carrots, celery
5 cloves minced garlic (about 2 tablespoons)
2 cups each – green zucchini, yellow squash, Savoy cabbage – all cut in small pieces
1 twenty-eight ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, smooshed up (about 3 ½ cups)
8 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, leaves stripped from the stems, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
1 sixteen-ounce can garbanzo beans (chick peas)
1 cup yellow corn (fresh, canned or frozen)
¾ cup grated Romano-pecorino cheese, plus some for sprinkling/topping
½ pound small pasta (ditalini, elbow macaroni, mini farfalle)
Salt (I use kosher)
Put a large pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta, cook for 4 minutes without stirring.
Give it a stir, let it brown for 4 minutes more without stirring.
Turn the heat to medium-low. Add the olive oil and the crushed red pepper. Let it heat up for a minute. Stir.
Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic and cook for 10 minutes. Stir, baby, stir.
Add the Savoy cabbage, add another drizzle (1 tablespoon) of olive oil. Cook for 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, the broth, and the water. Turn the heat to high. Let it come to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low.
Cook for 10 minutes or so, until the zucchini and squash are semi-soft.
Add the parsley and oregano.
Add the garbanzo beans (chick peas) and the corn.
Add the grated Romano cheese.
Let the soup cook for 5 minutes or so.
Taste for salt and pepper and adjust.
Remove from heat.
For the pasta…
Get a medium-sized pot, fill it with water, and put it on the highest heat.
When the water comes to a boil, add a couple tablespoons of salt (I use kosher).
Add your pasta. Follow the cooking instructions on the box. Two minutes before the pasta is supposed to be done, take a piece and bite into it. If it is chalky in the center, it is not done. Check your pasta every 2 minutes.
When the pasta is done (al dente, firm to the bite), drain, and put in a bowl.
Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and stir. You might not use all the pasta.
Dish it up! Get a soup bowl, fill it about ¾ of the way with soup.
Add some pasta to the soup. Give it a stir.
Top with grated/shaved Romano cheese, serve with some crusty bread, and…