If you received some money for a holiday gift (or even if you didn't), you might want to use it to make the (short) trip to the Medieval Times dinner and tournament at Arundel Mills Mall. This nine-year-old theatrical experience (29 years in Kissimmee, Florida) will whisk you back to the days of knights in shining armor defending their distressed damsels and generally settling their differences in good-natured competitions and even outright battles. All of this takes place in an arena setting with a thick, sandy floor. And most often on the backs of impressively trained and carapaced white Andalusian stallions, with a few handsome, beefy quarter horses prancing about as well.
The knights are beautifully costumed. As are the ladies, and even the wenches who tend to them — and to you. And while their behavior is well choreographed, their actions make for a charming, romantic "get-away" for you.
You and your party (you'll want to bring some kids along) will be seated above the fray in tiers of bench seats with narrow tables in front of them. Here, as the rather free-form story line helps move the show along, you'll be served a simple meal, which is nicely done. Tomato bisque and garlic bread. A half of a tender, juicy, perfectly cooked roast chicken. A single barbecued rib to gnaw. A couple of herbed potato wedges. All to be eaten with the fingers, of course. After all, this was before the Renaissance, when forks appeared as eating utensils. Not to worry, though, you'll get some napkins.
You'll also get a choice of iced tea or brown soda. (Spirited beverages are available, but cost extra.) And for dessert, the Pastry of the Castle, which was a delicately crisp, warm apple-pie triangle (phyllo) on the night we visited.
This is a well-conceived, professionally done sojourn in a time that has lived in literature for centuries and in Hollywood for decades. And while "Ivanhoe" or "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" may not necessarily be educational, Medieval Time prides itself on the numerous school groups that visit throughout the year for just that purpose.
Verily, everyone in your group will undoubtedly enjoy the pageantry and the food. Even the younger set, as soon as you confiscate their cell phones, and/or break their thumbs.
This charming show certainly triggered memories of myriad wistful hours spent reading the many Arthurian legends and virtually any historical novel I could get my hands on at our local library back in Lynn, Mass
And the simple food also did its part to bring back a flood of memories of family meals — from Grammy, from Mom and, later, from me. Arguably, while armored knights and distressed damsels speak of courtly love, family meals speak of more tangible shows of affection.
Gram was Italian, and that's what she cooked best. For six children (Mom was the only girl),and a bunch of grandchildren Stuffed peppers, incredible pork roasts, fabulous spaghetti and meatballs.
Mom was a rather passive-aggressive cook, arguably because Dad was Irish and boringly meat and potatoes all the way. He would've had mashed potatoes with our once-a-week spaghetti dinner if Mom hadn't refused to fix them.
Hard to believe, but one of Mom's non-Italian fortes was Boston baked beans. They earned her an entrée to virtually any dish-to-share party we attended. How good were they? Well, for a number of years, we schlepped the kids to the Bay State for summer vacation at my father-in-law's "seaside" (it did have an ocean view) home in Nahant, Mass. And every year, we co-hosted a family-and-friend Lobster Festival, where Papa would happily trade lobsters cooked over a wood fire for a pot or two of Myra's "Gasless" Beans.
Papa himself was a true "chef." He owned an ice cream stand/quasi diner in Lynn. It was there he produced ice cream that would make Ben and Jerry blush with shame. . At holiday time, he'd make a frozen pudding (aka rum raisin) that had so much rum it would never freeze solid. And a buttery chocolate sauce that you wanted to simply eat with a spoon.
Papa was a sly one, teaching me that if you want to be the star at a dinner party, make sure you produce the main dish and let your "helpers" do the rest of the menu. And that true success at hosting was to fix something that you're pretty your guests have never tried before. That way, they wouldn't know what it was supposed to taste like.
He would visit our home in Florida with half a suitcase full of clothes and one and a half suitcases filled with "exotic" ingredients that he'd use to make a fabulous meal for us and some of our friends. (Of course, this was at a time when scoring a bunch of fresh parsley at the supermarket was a major coup.) At his elbow, I learned the ins and outs of wok cookery. And how to make an authentic Paella a la Valenciana.
Just as Medieval Times triggered memories of romantic tween-age reading, and of warm and fuzzy family meals gone by, it was Mom who paved the way for a dish that is often requested for my own special family dinners, dish-to-share parties, and even, on occasion, serves as Christmas gifts and thank-you gifts. My "World-Famous Stuffed Shells." Mom made really good ones. Mine are great, chiefly because I add a white sauce (aka béchamel, aka becciamella) to the proceedings. And I don't use "skim" anything in them. I learned how to make the white sauce in seventh-grade cooking class, and, silly as it sounds, it was a defining moment in my culinary life.
Perhaps you'd like to try it. This will take you some time, preferably over a couple of evenings. Evening one, make the red sauce and the shell filling. Evening two, cook the shells according to package directions, .stuff 'em, make the white sauce, then put everything together and bake.
Red sauce: In a large pot, over medium, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil, and in it, sauté 1 large finely chopped onion until translucent. Add 6 large cloves garlic, sliced paper thin, and sauté 2 minutes. Add 6-8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, finely chopped and sauté 5 more minutes. Add 5 large cans crushed plum tomatoes and 2 cans (14-ounce) diced tomatoes, plus 3/4 cup dry red wine. Simmer over medium-low heat, uncovered, until tomatoes are thickened, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add 3 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, 2 tablespoons each, dried oregano and basil and 1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper and a very small pinch of dried hot red pepper flakes. Simmer 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 1 tablespoon dried mint and simmer 10 minutes. Taste for seasonings. Let cool, then refrigerate overnight (if it's winter, put it out on a table on the deck).
Filling: 2 large containers whole-milk ricotta cheese, 1 egg, 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, 1 egg, 1/3 cup chopped scallion greens, 1 package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed, well drained,, 1 tablespoon coarse black pepper, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Combine all ingredients well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
White sauce:1/4 cup each, unsalted butter and flour, 4 cups or more whole milk, 1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper. (No salt.) In a medium saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt butter. Whisk in flour and continue whisking until mixture is smooth. Cook, whisking, another 3 minutes. Slowly add 3 cups of the milk (if you heat it in the microwave, the process is quicker). Cook, whisking often, until mixture is thick, adding more milk as needed to achieve a medium thickness.
Toppings: About 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese and 3 cups shredded whole milk mozzarella cheese.
To assemble, use two smallish (7- or 8-inch by 12-inch) Pyrex baking dishes and/or 2 to 3 square aluminum foil baking pans (for gifting). Spread some warm red sauce on the bottom of the pan. Stuff cooked shells with the filling (It's a minor miracle when everything comes out even.) Arrange stuffed shells in prepared baking dishes. Using a large spoon, add some red sauce and some white sauce in diagonal stripes over tops of stuffed shells. Sprinkle some mozzarella shreds over the red sauce stripes. Use grated Parmesan cheese for the white stripes. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Use your index finger to check the center of one of the shells. If hot, remove foil and bake shells 15 minutes longer. Remove shells from oven and cover with foil for 10 minutes before serving. Serve some red sauce on the side. If using as gifts, let cool, then cover with wax paper, then foil until you're ready to present. Reheat shells with a foil cover. 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Makes many servings; it's a loaves and fishes kind of dish. .
Happy 2013! Fare well!