Monday, March 8, 2010

Girls Night In: A Toast to Paul

Last weekend I was in Florida visiting with my daughter Amy and my sister Lynn. My daughter lives in Tampa, my sister flew in from New Jersey and I flew in from Pittsburgh. Although we did see each other at Christmastime up north, we don’t see each other enough. Nothing like face time. (And hug time.) The little reunion was not the purpose of the visit, though. We were gathering to participate in what is called a “casting” of a replica of a coral reef into which my sister was placing her late husband’s ashes.

Let me try to explain, as briefly as I can: Back in the early 1990’s, a couple of college roommates in Florida became concerned about the erosion of coral reefs. After some research, they developed a way to make reef balls, made up of primarily concrete as a means to save the delicate coral reefs. And they successfully placed the reef balls in the ocean and helped preserve the marine eco-system.

One of the men’s father-in-law had mentioned, long before he died, that he’d like his ashes put into one of the reef balls, thinking how nice it would be for this fisherman to be surrounded by grouper and snapper after he was gone. That’s how Eternal Reefs got its start in 1998.

Back to my sister: Her husband died in 2007 after a tough time with cancer. Always the most generous of souls, he wanted his body to serve some purpose. So he made plans to have his body donated to the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine in New Jersey. My sister wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with the ashes later, still in their sealed box, until she just happened to spy an ad in the New York Times. My sister believes that if Paul had known about Eternal Reefs, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the idea. I think so, too; it’s in the same spirit.

And so our little trio embarked on our journey from Amy’s home in Tampa to Sarasota – just an hour’s drive – and helped cast the reef. Eight other families were doing the same thing that day. As the concrete truck came to Paul’s reef, Lynn placed Paul’s ashes into the concrete as it streamed into the mold. (Paul’s mold was #7 in line. Paul, who liked to gamble, would have liked the lucky number.) After about a half-hour had passed, we then “decorated” the top rim of the cast with shells and stones she had saved from vacation trips. My daughter also suggested we add our thumbprints, which we did. Next month, after the mold has completely set, Lynn will return to Florida, this time to Miami, where the reef will be dropped and a memorial service will be held.

It wasn’t a somber day at all: emotional, not maudlin; orderly, not structured. It was an event Paul would have liked because it was meaningful, but not fussy.

We weren’t sure how long the day would last. Turned out to be about three hours. We hadn’t made any firm plans for the day. After the casting, we found a nice shore side place to have lunch and take a walk along the beach.

Of course, after lunch we planned dinner! We’d already decided we were going to have a nice quiet evening in, cooking together. On the ride home, we planned our menu. My sister is just an excellent cook. Always has interesting things to make, simply and with fresh ingredients. And although it’s not 100% authentic, I wanted her to show me how to make something she’d told me about some time ago: short-cut ravioli using won-ton wrappers. The rest of our dinner was roasted pork loin, broccoli rabe, and Amy’s specialty: peanut butter no-bake cookies!

Making the ravioli wasn’t hard, merely somewhat time-consuming. But once you got a rhythm going, it was easy. I got frustrated a couple times at my filling oozing out, but Lynn showed me how not to put too much filling on and being firm in sealing the edges. I’ve read that many people have had trouble making these: filling oozing out in the water while cooking, or dissatisfaction with the fake “pasta.” You do have to be firm in sealing and as far as it not being pasta, well, it isn’t. It is what it is, a short-cut substitute that’s a pretty good one.

We chose a pre-seasoned pork loin as a time saver. And Lynn showed me how simple preparing the broccoli rabe was. She cooked the cut rabe stalks briefly in boiling water, then placed them in ice water. Then, after the roast was ready, and the ravioli cooked, she reheated the rabe in the microwave with garlic butter. They stayed a bright green; the blanching effectively perked up what was a pretty wilted-looking bunch, the last at the store.

Dinner was delightful. The time spent cooking with my daughter and sister, precious. It was the perfect ending to a lovely day. Paul would have liked the idea that we celebrated the day with a great dinner at home, instead of going out. We shared stories abut Paul, and had a toast or two. He always preferred dinner in. Who wouldn’t, married to a great cook like Lynn -- and such a special person.

Squash Ravioli with Sage Butter

1 package frozen butternut squash
1 C ricotta
¼ C. parmesan cheese
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
½ t. chopped fresh thyme
1 package won-ton wrappers

Thaw squash. In bowl, place ¾ cup squash (reserve the remainder for another use), the ricotta, parmesan, parsley and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Place wrappers on work surface. Have small bowl of water handy, for sealing. Place a tablespoon of filling in center of wrapper. Brush edges with water, or use fingers. Fold in half, one corner over to the other, forming a triangle. Press firmly all around to seal.

Cook ravioli in pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 1 minute. Carefully drain. Serve with Sage Butter Sauce.

Sage Butter Sauce

5 T unsalted butter
15-18 small fresh sage leaves
¼ C chicken broth
Melt butter in a medium frying pan over medium heat until the white milk solids have browned, about 5 minutes. Add sage and chicken broth and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until sauce is reduced and slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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