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At age 82, most people don't want to write a cookbook, and certainly not a first book. But this project didn't scare Joseph Lagnese, who is proud to present his new memoir/cookbook, "Cookin': Recollections and Recipes of Joe Lagnese."
Cooking is just one of Mr. Lagnese's passions, or "avocations," as he would say. He's also a sculptor and a jazz composer, arranger and musician, playing clarinet and sax in his working, swinging group, Swingtet 8. The sheet music for his song, also titled "Cookin'," is the background of his book's cover. If that weren't enough, he still sometimes works at his day job as an environmental engineer, designing sewage treatment plants, plus, occasionally, he's a forensic witness on wastewater treatment issues.
A father of six sons, this Pittsburgh native and Hampton resident began cooking when his wife, Patsy (Pat), suffered debilitating morning sickness during her pregnancies. He cooks Italian, inspired by his heritage and the food he grew up enjoying, including polenta, pasta, frittatas, roasted meats and well-cooked leafy greens ("not mushy, but not crunchy") flavored with plenty of olive oil and garlic.
Mr. Lagnese still makes his own sausage, rolls out his own "delicate" ravioli and bakes bread twice a week. His favorite bread is ciabatta and he learned the secrets of his special loaf from the baker at Breadworks.
The genesis for this book came about when a daughter-in-law, Muriel, wife of his eldest son, Les, developed cystic fibrosis. The couple had no children, although there are 12 grandchildren from the other sons.
While all the Lagnese sons live in Pittsburgh, Muriel and Les moved close to Pat and Joe, and the four shared many meals. Muriel got sicker, and Joe Lagnese visited her every day, amazed at her courage and strength. He cooked for her the Italian food she had come to love.
"She took control [of her illness]," he says. "I wouldn't say with a smile. That's the way she did everything. She was very brave, enduring six hours a day of intravenous antibiotics. She got hospice for herself."
Muriel died in December 2009 at age 56. In her honor, the family started a memorial fund, calling it Muriel's Breath of Life. They stage events and fundraisers to collect money to help offset costs for other victims of this disease. This book was written as part of that effort, with proceeds going to the fund.
One of Mr. Lagnese's sons is David Lagnese, who is a member of the Farmers Market Cooperative of East Liberty, where he sells coffee from Jamaica, cheeses from Pennsylvania and olive oil from California.
Joseph Lagnese chose to write his recipes in a conversational style, a little unorthodox, and some (including me) might quibble, but the book makes for fun reading and delicious flavor combinations.
Tales of his childhood include one about the little pig his father gave him for a pet, which grew "into a husky sow," with a hearty appetite. The pig was fed twice a day, as his grandmother kept close watch.
"Well, what do you think my grandmother's response was to my pig's rapture and delight to the food offered her? 'Godda Bless! Godda bless!' "
One weekend, while young Joe was away visiting relatives, the pig's pen was emptied. The pig was transformed into "an abundant amount of sausage hanging from a clothesline in the basement."
In another passage, he writes about a group of elderly women, "widowed Italian ladies," clad in black, who foraged each spring in his family's fields. They picked dandelions and wild mustard greens, "filling sacks with this bounty of nature on their annual pilgrimages."
Dandelions became a favorite vegetable. Growing up, dandelions were enjoyed "both raw in salads as well as cooked with eggs in olive oil and garlic." He writes: "It is still a tradition of my immediate family to have a dandelion salad as part of the Easter dinner, with dandelions that I pick from the nearby fields."
For a year, Mr. Lagnese worked on this book, a labor of love. While not a trained chef, he wanted to share his style of food, capture his flavors and his memories. He says, "I loved the life that I had."
White Beans Salad
Drain the liquid from a can of cannellini beans and pour the beans into a bowl. Then add olive oil, chopped, skinned, seeded fresh tomatoes, chopped fresh basil or dried oregano, and, of course, salt and pepper. I usually go a little heavy on the black pepper. Mix well, and keep at room temperature before serving. Another great touch to this dish is to crumble some drained, canned, water-packed albacore tuna into the mix, together with some pitted and sliced calamata olives.
Sliced Oranges, Olives and Onions
For this dish, seedless navel oranges must be used. They should be peeled [and the white pith cut off], and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces and placed neatly on a serving dish, overlapping the slices. Next, thinly sliced rings of red onion, or Vidalia onion are scattered over the oranges, and finally, cured black Italian olives are placed into all the crevices. Season with salt and pepper; drizzle with olive oil and the dish is ready to be served.
Cut the potatoes into orange-segment-sized wedges (most times with the skins on). Season with salt and pepper and place in a baking dish with lots of fresh rosemary and whole garlic cloves. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the baking dish. I also like to cut one or two lemons into wedges and add them to the potatoes (experience and taste will determine how many lemons you might want to add). After mixing to coat the potato wedges thoroughly with olive oil, bake them in a 350-degrees oven for about an hour or until the potato pieces can be pierced through with a fork and they are a little crusty.
-- Recipes adapted from "Cookin': Recollections and Recipes of Joe Lagnese" by Joe Lagnese. It is self-published and may be purchased for $25 from http://murielsbreathoflife.org.
Miriam Rubin: email@example.com .