Better Than a Star Rating

~By Sarah Pascarella

My family is inventive, both with words and ingredients. Traditions get passed down through our own created lexicon and recipes. When my Italian-Irish father makes spaghetti sauce, it’s Nana’s recipe. When my Polish-Irish-German mother makes potato soup, it’s my grandfather’s special concoction. Some of my favorite dishes to prepare now, as an adult, are the foods that were served on my childhood table, as they are a powerful connection to those who came before me. (And they taste pretty good, too.)

In recent years, my father has branched out from the old standards and started consulting cookbooks. His experiments have had mixed results, with some dishes getting devoured in one sitting (long-carrot beef stew), others ending up in the trash can after a few tentative tastes (chicken with creamy thyme sauce). He tends to mix simple, nutritious meals with more high-end, decadent dishes. It’s not unusual to have hamburgers on the grill one night, followed by seafood fra diavolo the next.

When I was growing up, my father would dish out portions for all of us, then sit back to watch my two sisters, my mother, and I take our first taste.

“Well?” he’d ask.

“Delicious!” we’d reply, more times than not.

“How much would you pay for this in a restaurant?” was the inevitable follow-up. Eventually we started low-balling him just for fun.

“This steak? 50 cents.”

“Shrimp and prosciutto? Maybe two dollars.”

If the dish was good, we always made sure to have seconds. If we didn’t, he might not make it again. Despite our raves and bulging stomachs, however, his opinion was the final one. If he didn’t like his own dish, or thought the preparation effort exceeded the flavor or payoff, it wouldn’t be made again.

On a recent visit home, I noticed my sister poring over one of my father’s dog-eared cookbooks, searching for old recipes she could recreate at her apartment in New York. She chuckled at his distinctive penmanship in the margins.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked her.

She slid the book across our kitchen table and pointed. To the left of one particularly bad recipe was scrawled “NFG.”

“NFG?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “No f***ing good.”

My father, within earshot, chimed in. “Of course. I wouldn’t want to make something that was bad again. Sometimes I don’t always remember, you know.”

“Ah,” I replied. Like so many of his favorite recipes, this was simple and to-the-point.

Inevitably, like our favorite dishes being passed down to me and my sisters, this classification system has been adopted in our own cookbooks. Now, whenever I make a recipe that doesn’t deserve a repeat, the margins get marked with a big NFG.

***

Broiled Shrimp Italian Style (An “RG” recipe that serves 4)
Source: The James Beard Cookbook

INGREDITENS

2 lbs. shrimp
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/4 lb. prosciutto
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup tomato puree
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. black pepper
Fresh parsley, chopped

DIRECTIONS

Heat the olive oil. Peel and chop the garlic and add it to the hot oil to saute. Let it soften but not brown. Cut the prosciutto in shreds, add to the oil and garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Then add the wine, tomato puree, salt, mustard, oregano, and pepper. Blend thoroughly and heat through.

Shell the shrimp but leave the tails on. Remove the black veins along the backs and and rinse the shrimp to clean off all grit. Place the shrimp in a shallow pan large enough for them all to lie flat in the pan. Mix a handful of chopped parsley with the sauce and pour it over the shrimp. Marinate for several hours in the fridge.

Broil under a broiler flame in the same pan without draining off the sauce. Baste with the sauce in the pan during broiling. The shrimp will cook in about 7 to 9 minutes.

This dish is worth making again (and again). We make this for part of our Christmas Eve feast every year. It goes splendidly with garlicky sauteed greens, such as kale or spinach.

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