Food, Lifestyle

Taking the bait

Pictured are calamari meatballs. Find the recipe below.


Seeing the years flip past at increasing speed is enough to turn many people against their own birthdays, but I love seeing my special day come around each year. Of course, I take full advantage and expand the annual Celebration of Me into a several-day event, at least.

I got started about a week ago, despite a slower than anticipated recuperation from what had been billed as a “small” surgical procedure. But it’s quite possible, I find, to push discomfort far into the background simply by concentrating on being happy. Of course, having my daughter, Kathy, the only one of my four children living more than a couple of miles from me, in town for one of her quarterly visits from Florida certainly helped.

It’s also nice to have family and friends who know how to have fun. Kathy and her older sister, Sue, took me to the Anchor, practically under the bridge in Beverly, for lunch last Friday. The place was rockin’ and we had the best time. I ordered twin lobsters, substantial enough that Kathy and I could share and priced at a tasty $20. We even won $20 playing Keno, my first experience with the game.

Earlier in the week, I joined a couple of friends who also have birthdays in February for lunch at my newest favorite restaurant, Superfine, in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where I had the incredible southern fried chicken. It was great seeing Elery, Penny and Susie.

But the high point of my restaurant week was dinner at Scampo, in Boston’s Liberty Hotel. My oldest friend, Billy, took me, my husband Todd and Kathy out for a luscious and very expensive evening. He’s the sweetest friend. I loved the string beans tempura so much that I decided to make them part of our Super Bowl menu, to go along with the calamari meatballs that Kathy insisted I make.

There was one more wonderful meal, as youngest daughter, Danielle, made a very special at-home dinner filled with Rosalie’s restaurant nostalgia. Dani was on my hip, a 2-year-old, when I started the restaurant in Marblehead, so she grew up with the names, flavors and aromas of certain dishes helping to shape her psyche.

She served spinach pie to start and wrapped things up with a fruit tart, two landmark Rosalie’s recipes, and she did a wonderful job triggering old feelings. There was so much delicious food during those several days to help us celebrate great friends, a Patriots victory, a wonderful birthday and a loving family.

When I moved to Marblehead all those years ago, I stopped at the fish market to check it out. I scanned the fresh fish and didn’t see any calamari. I asked if it was in the back. The response was insulting and belittling: “We use that for bait around here.” Maybe I read too much into it, but was he suggesting that I didn’t belong there?

Happily, things have changed in our part of the planet with tastes becoming more sophisticated and creative.  

Recently, we had lunch at a newish place in Cambridge in a neighborhood packed with food from around the world: Thai, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese, Mexican, Italian … all within a walk of each other. Little Donkey is a tapas restaurant, but its small plates are filled with dynamic flavors that refuse to be constrained by cultural divides. Their Vietnamese Bologna, for example, contains no bologna — it is made instead with fried squid, peanuts and cabbage. It is delicious: squid flattened until not quite as thin as baloney and cooked just right in a fish sauce with crunchy vegetables, nuts and aromatics with Vietnamese flavorings. Who knew that my old favorite calamari could be so versatile?

It is certainly no longer used only for bait.

After my restaurant years, I worked for a time at Tufts University as director of catering. I also taught a course in the school’s Experimental College that I called Food as an Avenue to Culture. Eighty kids from several different countries signed up, which was way too many for the concept, so I was forced to whittle it down to 18. I invited Boston area chefs from a range of ethnic restaurants to cook with me for three hours, as we used their country’s food as an entry point to learning about its culture and politics.

The students seemed to love the course, and especially the food. They learned about buying, storing, preparing and cooking various foods. And we focused not so much on preparing fancy dishes but more on learning about the elements that make those foods possible. For example, garlic, which is used in so many cuisines, is a vegetable, a member of the lily family along with onions, shallots, leeks and scallions, and is considered the “catsup of intellectuals.”

I remember my grandfather feeling badly because someone he worked with insulted him with a comment about being an immigrant, smelling of garlic. They were wrong to abuse him for being different, but they were right to link his identity so closely to a food, to an aroma. A developed palate can recognize not just whether garlic is in a dish, but much more. We can discern whether a particular dish was prepared in France, Italy, Mexico or South America, and humans also carry rich differences based on where and how we were raised — differences that create varied personalities.

How lucky are we to be living at a time when we can celebrate both the foods of various countries and the people who carry those flavors to us. I don’t forget that it was only a few generations ago that people like my grandfather were insulted because of their differences, just as I remember the fish monger who insulted me because I knew enough to use squid for something better than bait!

 Calamari meatballs   

  • Buy a 1 pound package of frozen squid tubes with the tentacles.  When it is partially defrosted, grind the squid coarsely in the food processor. Pulse on and off so you don’t get mush, which is the reason it’s best to do this when it is partially frozen.
  • Spoon into a bowl.  
  • In the food processor place 4 slices of Italian bread, broken up, with 2 cloves of garlic, several sprigs of flat leaf parsley, mostly the flowers, 5 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, 1 egg and a little salt.
  • Pulse to combine. Add to the calamari bowl.  
  • Add 1 cup of dried bread crumbs like panko and mix well to incorporate. (I prefer to use my own homemade.) This should tighten up the calamari mixture.
  • Wet your fingers with water. Make small meatballs; I use a small melon baller, which is a great tool for this.  
  • Roll the meatballs gently in flour and place them on an oiled shallow pan a few inches apart. Spray with olive oil, which you can buy in an aerosol container.  
  • Bake for 15 minutes and then gently turn them over to brown on the other side for another 10 minutes or so or until browned.  
  • Ladle 2 cups of heated marinara sauce over the meatballs and return to the oven for 15 minutes, then turn them and bake another 15 minutes.  
  • Serve on little rolls or with pasta. It may sound like lots of work, but it isn’t. Go for it.

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