Feast on Mount Pleasant cook's Italian fare
When family, friends and great food mix, somebody's going to spread the word.
Karen Hoppmann Harris is wowed by the social gatherings hosted by Jim and Sally Monaghan, particularly their Sunday “feasts” with a house full of neighbors at the table. She says Jim is a fabulous cook who not only makes knockout Italian dishes but has a Midas touch with homemade bread, creamy mac 'n' cheese, chili and “lip-smacking wings.”
Karen suggested we profile Jim and his cooking for this column, and it was a great tip.
Name: Jim Monaghan
Residence: Mount Pleasant
Family: Wife, Sally; three children, one daughter-in-law and one grandson
Occupation: Commercial and resort real estate development
Q: Your name doesn't indicate it, but we hear you're Italian and are known for cooking family-style feasts. How did you come by your love of cooking?
A: My father came from England and my mother and her whole family comes from Sicily, all Italians. My father was the only Irishman allowed into the family. So I grew up with the entire Italian side of my family. My grandmother Perricone worked in an Italian bakery and my grandfather worked in an Italian deli /butcher shop in New Jersey. Since I can remember I was always helping my grandmother cook and later in life she always helped me cook. Sunday was and still is the big day. All family and close friends have to come over and eat a “feast.” It's just something we have always done, and still enjoy doing.
Q: What is one of your earliest food memories?
A: I remember making hundreds of homemade cheese raviolis, Italian cookies and gallons of gravy with my grandmother. Usually for a holiday like Thanksgiving. We would cook for an entire week. Then have a ravioli-eating contest with my cousins and uncles. My Uncle Tony always won!
Q: What are a few of the Italian dishes you do best?
A: My Italian breads, pizzas and gravy. I make homemade Italian bread that I stuff with pepperoni or sausage, provolone and mozzarella cheeses. As my grandmother would say if you're on a diet, just eat half as much.
Q: What's the difference between sauce and gravy in Italian-American cooking?
A: Gravy is always made with meat. Marinara (red) gravy has meat in it like Italian sausage, meatballs and beef short ribs. Brown gravy is served over roast or pork. Sauce has no meat. Like marinara sauce, white sauce or alfredo sauce.
Q: What's your secret to great mac 'n' cheese?
A: Believe it or not, Velveeta cheese. I make mine in a Crock-Pot. Not in the oven. Use Velveeta and extra sharp cheddar cheese, butter, evaporated milk and heavy cream.
Q: Have you been to Italy? If so, what did you come away with concerning food?
A: Yes, I actually still have family in Sicily that own olive farms. Some of the food in Italy is differently prepared; we have Americanized 80 percent of the way the food is made. The Italian cheeses and meats are so good, just a world apart from ours.
Q: There's a huge interest in food these days, but then we hear that people aren't really cooking. What are they missing?
A: Cooking takes practice, and it builds good family bonds. I am lucky to have built my house with the kitchen as an entertainment center. So when I am cooking and have friends and family over they are right there with me either drinking a glass of wine or helping me cook.
A favorite recipe:
It's hard to narrow down my favorite recipe, but personally I love my grandmother's eggplant rollotini. It would be up there in my Top 10.
Makes 18-22 rolls
3 to 4 small eggplants, peeled and sliced thin (see cook's note)
Kosher or sea salt
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves crushed or minced garlic, divided use
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 (30-ounce) can of crushed Italian tomatoes
4 (12-ounce) cans of tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon table salt
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups Italian bread crumbs
Olive oil for frying
1 large (2-pound) container ricotta cheese
2 pounds shredded mozzarella cheese
8 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Cook's note: Recipe makes up to twice as much sauce as needed for this dish, so sauce ingredients may be halved, if desired. Or, make all of the sauce and refrigerate or freeze leftover amount to use for pasta or other dishes.
When buying the eggplants, look for the smallest ones you can find, because they have fewer seeds. Use about 3 or 4, depending on size. Peel the eggplant with a potato peeler. Once peeled, cut the eggplant lengthwise in thin slices (try to keep consistent with the thickness). Cover a cookie sheet with newspaper and lay the eggplant down in rows. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt over the entire row. Lay down more newspaper and repeat another row on top. When last row is complete cover it with newspaper and then another cookie sheet and place something heavy on the top of the cookie sheet (like a blender or big cans). Let dry out for 1 to 2 hours.
In a big pot pour the ¼ cup olive oil and heat on medium high. Add 2 cloves of the garlic and the fennel seeds. When garlic starts to sizzle, add crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. For each can of tomato paste add 2 cans of water. Stir until creamy. Add the sugar, table salt, basil, oregano, crushed red pepper and black pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring every few minutes. Don't let the sauce stick to the bottom. Once boiling, turn to medium heat and cover. Let simmer for at least 1 hour and continue stirring every 10 to 15 minutes.
In a bowl, beat the eggs with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil until smooth. Pour the bread crumbs onto a plate. Dip the eggplant slices into the eggs then drag through the breadcrumbs on both sides. Place eggplant on clean newspaper for drying, repeat process until all eggplant slices are done. Let stand for 15 minutes to dry.
Pour enough olive oil into a large skillet to cover the bottom and heat over medium. Add the remaining 4 cloves crushed garlic. When garlic starts to sizzle, fry the eggplant slices in batches until light golden brown on both sides. Return to newspaper for draining. Add more olive oil to the pan as needed to finish frying.
Take the ricotta cheese out of the container and mix it in a bowl to loosen it up.
Cover the bottom of a 9x13-inch casserole dish with some of the tomato sauce. Sprinkle the top heavily with Parmesan cheese. Take a slice of eggplant and spread ricotta cheese on it, then sprinkle mozzarella and Parmesan cheese on it. Roll the eggplant up and place it in the pan lip side down. Continue until pan is filled up. Rolls should be in rows and touching side to side. Pour a generous amount of the sauce over the top of the entire dish, then sprinkle Parmesan heavily over the entire dish. Cover in mozzarella cheese.
Cover dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes until golden brown.
Serve with homemade Italian bread, pasta and a salad. Oh, don't forget many bottles of red wine.
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