Classic Pasta Salad

Memorial Day weekend is the start the grilling season for me. I’ll admit, like most people around here, I enjoy grilling or barbecuing (low and slow) in my own back yard — but I’m definitely a fair-weather cook… no inclement weather or winter grilling for me! I just don’t get the appeal of standing in an open garage wrapped in a parka grilling burgers in January.

So this weekend (80 degrees and sunny) I got out there and cleaned up the ol’ gas grill; checked the remaining propane in the tank (praying I didn’t have to drive to the corner and get a refill), and fired her up to cook some burgers and hots for the Lista family. Well actually it was burgers, red hots, white hots, Italian sausage, spinach and feta sausage, and andouille sausage — we like variety. 

Along with all the charcuterie we also enjoyed several salads including that proverbial Lista favorite Pasta Salad. In my family, pasta salad is a staple at most gatherings. With its colorful fresh veggies, diced cheese and deli meats, pasta salad is the flamboyant cousin of the macaroni salad family — and a refreshing change of pace from the heavier mayo-based variety. I first remember making pasta salad at Lista’s Italian Cuisine as a feature for our “fabulous salad bar” and as a side dish for many lunch specials. We referred to it as Italian Pasta Salad (of course) and it was dressed with a simple vinaigrette and featured fresh broccoli florets, tomatoes, olives, salami and cheese.

It seems like pasta salad really came into vogue in the early 1980’s. I remember it becoming more and more popular around that time, and was served at restaurants featuring large elaborate salad bars (remember Charlie Bubbles?) and grocery store that  began carrying prepared foods to go. It was around that same time that many of  our local taverns began to serve food to their customers (definitely a nice break from pickle eggs and beer nuts). And when a bartender served a burger or beef on weck they could “fancy it up” by adding a side of pasta salad since the traditional oil and vinegar dressing held up better than a mayo-based dressing and thus kept customers experiencing undue intestinal discomforts.

There are so many different renditions of pasta salad that if you don’t have a particular favorite you can make it different every time. I tend to be a traditionalist and like the classics, so here is my favorite versions of Pasta Salad based on the one we served at Lista’s and I have made many times since.

Classic Lista’s Pasta Salad

Prep time:  30 minutes
Cook time:  15 minutes (plus up to 8 hours chilling)
Serves:  8-12 

16 oz Fusilli Pasta (spirals) preferrably Tri-Colored – cooked al dente
1 small head Broccoli – cut into tiny florets
1 lb Roma Tomatoes – diced (or cherry tomatoes halved)
1 small Zucchini – trimmed and halved lengthwise, cut into thin slices
1/2 small Red Onion – thinly sliced
1 cup Ripe (black) Olives – halved lengthwise
8 oz Fresh Mozzarella – cut into 1/2″ cubes
4 oz Genoa Salami – cut into 1/2″ cubes (or julienne strips)
1/2 cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese – divided
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 cup Red wine Vinegar
1 TBSP Dijon Mustard
1 TBSP Sugar
1 tsp Dry Italian Herb Blend
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Pinch Red Pepper Flakes
Chopped Fresh Parsley – for garnish (optional)

1. In a large pot of slated water, cook the pasta per package directions until just al dente (about 8-10 minutes). Drain in a colander and rinse under cool water. Shake off excess water and allow to sit in colander until ready to use.
2. In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup Romano cheese, olive oil, vinegar, dijon mustard, sugar, Italian herbs, salt, black and red peppers. Whisk together with a few drops of water to form a vinaigrette. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the broccoli florets, diced tomatoes, sliced zucchini, sliced onions, halved olives, diced mozzarella and salami. Add cooked and cooled pasta and vinaigrette to bowl and toss until all ingredients are combined. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours up to over night.

4. Pour salad into serving bowl and sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Romano cheese and chopped fresh parsley (if using) over the top as a garnish before serving.

There you have it, a Classic Pasta Salad that will work for any pot-luck, picnic or family gathering. Remember to give it plenty of time to chill before serving and keep it colorful and fresh. I hope you enjoy this version of a simple family favorite.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day (of course in my family every day is Mother’s day) so I wanted to give honor to my beautiful mom Doris Lista.

Mom has been a great influence in my life and over the years we have forged a wonderfully candid and dependable relationship. Many of the better qualities I possess can be attributed to mom’s steady character, persistent teaching, and unwavering love. Through many difficult moments, mom taught me perseverance, dignity, hope and faith that in the end everything will work out. And most importantly, mom taught me to value myself as a person despite what others might think, say or do.

In my perspective, mom’s association with 74 Main Street and Lista’s Italian Cuisine was much more behind the scenes than hands-on. Mom’s greatest role in those days was as an anchor for our family and supporter of my dad. Although she did occasionally work at Lista’s, I always think of mom as a school teacher and administrator, and a tax preparer (operating Lista’s Tax Service until  she retired at age 72) — and as the love of my dad’s life for 56 years of marriage.

Although mom wasn’t the biggest culinary influence in my life, she did have her moments in the kitchen. I still can’t match my mom’s pot roast or beef stew — mine just never quite tastes as good. And some of her favorite Gailor family recipes were only made by a feel and memory that can’t be passed down. Of course there were the not-so-successful dishes like the one called “Shipwreck” (which I think came from my sister’s high school Home Economics class)… and the name says it all as far as I was concerned. Still, unlike me, one thing mom excels in is baking delicious and sometimes decadent desserts. Mom’s holiday traditional Cream Cheese Fruit Pies were legendary (at least in our family) and her Pineapple Upside down CakeCinnamon Streusel Cake, and Chocolate Almond Crunch Cake are melt-in-your-mouth amazing! To this day I request mom’s Sour Cream Chocolate Cake for my birthday every year — I don’t often get it but I still ask.

Funny thing is I remember mom’s favorite dessert, back in the day, was Coconut Cream Pie, she loved Coconut Cream Pie but I can’t recall her ever making it at home. (At Lista’s we  had a wonderful baker, Marie Cowan, who was renowned for her pies.) When I was in grade school and mom was still teaching, we used to walk to Lista’s after school to see my Dad and get a snack. I liked french fries… but mom would always order a slice of Coconut Cream Pie and… a Diet Pepsi! The incongruity of that combination still makes me laugh.


So in honor of Mother’s Day and my mom Doris, I offer you this Coconut Cream Pie recipe. This recipe is NOT a coconut custard pie made with eggs and a cooked filling — instead it is a “quick” type recipe using vanilla pudding mix — it’s not the original from Lista’s (those weren’t passed down to me) but it’s probably pretty close from what I remember.

Pretty Close Coconut Cream Pie

Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 4 hours including chilling
Serves: 8-12 

1 (9 inch) Prebaked Pie Crust (homemade or store bought)
2 (3.4 oz) boxes Instant Vanilla Pudding & Pie Filling Mix
3 1/2 cups Cold Milk
2 cups Sweetened Shredded Coconut
1-2 cups Fresh Whipped Cream – for topping
1/2 cup Toasted Coconut – for topping

1. Prepare and bake one 9 inch pie crust until golden brown. Chill pie crust while making the filling.
2. Add pudding mix to a large bowl, add cold milk and whisk until smooth. Let sit for 5 minutes until soft set, then stir in 2 cups coconut. Pour into prepared pie crust. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 3-4 hours.
3. To make whipped cream use:
– 1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
– 1 tsp vanilla extract
– 2 tbsp powdered sugar
Directions: Using chilled bowl and beaters, beat the heavy cream until it thickens. Add vanilla and powdered sugar (a little at a time) and continue to beat on high until stiff peaks form – about 8-10 minutes depending on mixer speed. Chill until ready to use.
4. To make toasted coconut use:
– 1/2 cup shredded sweetened coconut
Directions: Place a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the coconut and break up any chunks using a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until the coconut begins to steam and brown. Turn the heat to low and continue stirring constantly until the coconut is evenly browned  — be careful it will go from brown to burned quickly. As soon as the coconut is browned remove pan from heat and place the toasted coconut on a plate to cool.
5. Before serving, top the pie with whipped cream and toasted coconut. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 3 days. 

There you have it, Coconut Cream Pie that’s pretty close to the one my mom loved to eat at Lista’s. If you were around Brockport NY back in the day and remember eating at Lista’s Italian Cuisine, I hope this post reminds you of the great desserts we served. And if you ever knew my mom, Doris Lista, as a neighbor, teacher, or income tax preparer, or friend I hope you can celebrate her with me on this Mother’s Day. Love you Mom!

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Fajitas for Cinco de Mayo

We really like Mexican food… or probably more accurately Mexican-American or Tex-Mex food. There is a local place that we like to eat occasionally (no, not Taco Bell, although we do eat there too) and we almost always end up getting fajitas. Fajitas are a good choice since they can be enjoyed without the tortillas which make the dish basically Gluten Free (thus making it suitable for Andrea to eat). 

The funny thing about fajitas is that, technically speaking, they are made with grilled skirt steak (arracheras in Mexico) — yet we typically order our fajitas made with chicken or sometimes shrimp… and on more than one occasion we have eaten them sans any protein (i.e. vegetarian). So, although I like fajitas, I’m probably not a true fajita expert. That being said, I did discover that fajitas have only been on the food scene for the past 45 years or so — kind of nuevo cuisine in a sense.

Fajitas most likely came from a common practice during the 1800’s cattle drives down Texas way when the cowboys would butcher a steer for their dinner and offer the less desirable portions to the Mexican vaqueros who helped drive the cattle. The arrachera (or skirt steak) is a tough cut that comes from the belly of the cow and would otherwise be cast aside. The vaqueros would cook this meat seasoned with salt and chilies over the camp fire. To combat the stringy toughness of the meat they would cut it in thin strips before eating it with the usual tortillas and frijoles

Use of the word fajitas (meaning “little strips or belts”) did not come into print — or popularity — until the 1970’s, and as a menu item it didn’t grow in popularity until the 1980’s when most every part of the country was serving them. I can remember ordering fajitas for the first time back in the early 80’s and being rather astonished, and slightly embarrassed, to have the dish come out on a noisily “sizzling” platter with a kind of mini parade of servers carrying the accompanying side dishes of rice, refried beans, tortillas, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream! Really it was quite a production, and there was hardly room enough on the table for all the dishes.

So, since today is May 5th or Cinco de Mayo — one of my favorite foodie holidays (did I mention that I love Mexican food?) — and in honor of the commemoration of the Mexican Army’s difficult victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza — I offer you my recipe for Fajitas.

Fajitas for Cinco de Mayo

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes

1/2 cup Packed Cilantro Leaves
1/4 cup Lime Juice
1 TBSP Chili Powder
1 TBSP Ground Cumin
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1/2 tsp Salt
2 lbs Skirt Steak (or similar cut)
2 Red Bell Peppers – seeded and sliced
2 Green Bell Peppers – seeded and sliced
1 large White Onion – halved and sliced
1 medium Poblano Pepper – seeded and sliced (optional)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Warmed Flour Tortillas for serving
Sliced Hass Avocados for serving
Pico de Gallo for serving (see recipe below)

1. For Marinade: In a blender or food processor combine the cilantro, lime juice, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder and salt. Process until smooth adding a little water if needed.
2. Pour marinade in a resealable plastic bag, add the steak and turn to coat. Refrigerate until ready to use (about 30 minutes).
3. Make pico de gallo following the recipe below and refrigerate until needed.
4. Preheat a large grill pan or cast iron skillet over med-high heat. Working in batches if necessary, grill sliced peppers and onions until slightly charred and just crisp-tender. Place cooked vegetables on a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
5. Remove steak from marinade and shake off excess. Using the same grill pan on med-high heat, grill the steak to desired doneness (about 3-5 minutes per side for medium rare). Remove steak to platter and allow to rest before slicing across the grain into thin strips.
6. To serve, place peppers and onions on tortilla, layer with steak strips, avocado, and pico de gallo. (Additional toppings may include lettuce, cheese, sour cream, etc.)

Quick Pico de Gallo

2 medium Firm, Ripe Tomatoes – seeded & finely diced
1/3 cup Cilantro – chopped
1/4 cup White Onion – finely diced
1 small fresh Jalapeño – seeded & finely diced
2 TBSP Lime Juice – or to taste
1/2 tsp Salt – or to taste

Directions: Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and allow to marinate 30 minutes.

There you have it, my take on the traditional skirt steak fajitas. The marinade works equally as well on chicken, shrimp, or pork loin. Just adjust cooking times accordingly and use a thermometer to be sure the meat is cooked properly. I only featured a few toppings in this recipe since I wanted the meat to be the star — but feel free to use whatever your family likes. Although I think the pico de gallo is a must have. I also like to serve fajitas with yellow rice and pinto beans on the side. I hope you enjoyed Cinco de Mayo today and I hope you think to make fajitas again during the summer grilling season.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”