Local chef serves up a new cookbook

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:50

Featuring Italian recipes from his mother and grandmother Andover Township — “It’s been a work of love,” said Andover resident and chef, Rick Melfi, who has just released his first book, “The Food Pusher’s Cookbook: Recollections and Recipes of an Italian American Tradition”. The book is filled with 175 recipes from his mother and grandmother, preceded by chapters reflecting the stories behind the foods featured. Melfi’s mother cooked everything from scratch daily, with many of the recipe’s staples coming from a garden his father planted at the family’s home in Dumont. Melfi’s love of cooking developed from a very early age, he said. He described himself as “The kid standing on the chair against the kitchen counter” always observing what his mother was cooking. “I found my calling at a very early age,” said Melfi, who knew when he graduated high school he wanted to be a chef. He enlisted in the Air Force, where he was a cook, and then studied at the Culinary Institute of America, a school with strong ties to the military, where military cooks were often retrained. Melfi, who has worked in the industry for 30 years, is a chef at the Coaches Club in the New Meadowlands Stadium, where Jets and Giants VIP Ticketholders can enjoy a full-blown buffet meal. Melfi said the cuisine varies from stadium fare to upscale, such as rack of lamb and raw bar selections. For his book, Melfi had the task of rewriting handwritten recipes, and translating some from Italian to English, passed down from generations within his own family. From there, he needed to standardize the measurements, and retest each recipe. The process, including writing the book, and taking photographs of the dishes (which he did on his own), took approximately three years. “My mom is ecstatic her recipes and my grandmother’s are preserved,” he said. The concept of the food pusher goes back to his own roots with his own family, where he recollected the importance of meal times, and spending an hour nightly to sit down together, whereas some of Melfi’s childhood pals would be back outside playing in a much shorter time. As a first-generation Italian-American growing up in the Bronx and New Jersey, he especially remembers the placement of abundant food on the dinner table, and the time and love into each preparation. “Every race and religion has a food pusher,” said Melfi, describing a food pusher as an individual who insists that when someone comes to their home for a visit, they sit down to eat something. He said the food pusher moniker was coined by one of his friends when he was a teenager to depict his mother. “Anyone who was anywhere near our home, at anything close to a mealtime, would have a seat at our table,” Melfi said. “Attendance was mandatory, as were second and third helpings. It seemed normal enough to my siblings and me.” Unlike typical cookbook covers, which portray an overflowing plate of food, Melfi’s reflects an almost empty platter of Pasta Puttanesca, in anticipation of one finishing what is put in front of them when at a food pusher’s dining room table. “Think very simple easy to follow recipes, and ingredients,” said Melfi of the contents of the cookbook. Melfi, who has also been a member of Andover Township’s Fire Department for 21 years, said one of the recipes featured in the book is the signature dish for their annual venison dinner fundraiser, a Venison Goulash. Melfi also helps coordinate the department’s fundraising chicken barbecue, with the next coming up on July 30. He said the process itself is sustainable, with the chicken, fresh tomatoes, corn, and watermelon all hailing from local farms. Melfi has more book signings scheduled, at the Andover Township Fire Department chicken barbecue on July 30, and at Perona Farms Sunday Brunch on July 31. His book can also be purchased on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and from his publisher, authorhouse.com. Melfi, who is additionally the Chairperson of Andover Township’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, said a second cookbook is in the works. See the chef in action The Sparta Farmer’s Market will feature Melfi in its weekly chef demo on Saturday, July 23, where he will demonstrate how to make a 10-minute fresh tomato sauce, and also a pig and lamb seared sausage with corn relish. All ingredients Melfi uses will come from items available for purchase at the farmer’s market. At the market, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Melfi will also have copies of his cookbook available for purchase.