It’s Grilling Week at Spoonful! To get you geared up for a long, awesome summer of cookouts and BBQs, we’ve got a bunch of great stories about BBQ gatherings. In this essay by MasterChef contestant Anna Rossi, she reflects on how life has changed for her and her husband AJ since being on the show and welcoming two children into their family.
Ten years ago, I walked into a neighborhood dive bar and met my favorite person. I was living in Boston’s historic Back Bay and a raucous watering hole called Daisy Buchanan’s hosted our chance encounter. Neither of us were regulars, so we consider it divine intervention. AJ barreled into my life with confidence and good humor that swept me off my feet. He fascinated me with his spirit and his appetite.
Both AJ and I are self-taught home cooks who share a passion for food and entertaining. Together, in 2012, we took our love — for one another and cooking — onto the third season of FOX’s MasterChef, a competition cooking show where confident home cooks face off against one another, one person eliminated each week, until the victor remains. We were cast as the first married couple to ever compete head to head, but unfortunately AJ was sent home far too early, eliminated for choosing dried orecchiette pasta when the judges would have liked to see fresh. I went on to flex my culinary muscles and represent us both in the MasterChef kitchen, making it through the rounds to the coveted Top 12.
Though neither of us took home the trophy, we both had some incredible culinary moments in the MasterChef kitchen despite the pressure. One of AJ’s recipes, New England Dirty Lobster — seared and then glazed in butter with bourbon — and my White Clam Pizza, Bloody Caesar (relax, It’s a Bloody Mary with clam juice), and chocolate Molten Lava Cake were published in MasterChef: The Ultimate Cookbook. Sharing delicious memories like these make up for AJ’s too early elimination and the undercooked tortellini that wound up sending me home. Ultimately, my personal experience on the show launched a dream career as a food, fashion, and lifestyle correspondent for NBC Boston and as a professional home cook focused on recipe development and recipe writing.
Since MasterChef, life has rolled forward. AJ and I now have two small children, Max (three) and Charlotte (two). We have planted our roots on Cape Ann on Boston’s North Shore just 20 miles from where we first met. In our house food is deeply personal, a wild and messy celebration of where we are in our life with little kids, and that means that it needs to be both simple and finger-lickin’ delicious.
What we are learning as parents is how much the kids’ appetites expand in relationship to their involvement with the meal. It’s no myth that toddlers can be picky eaters. AJ and I have found that creativity and engagement pull the kids into the flavors of the food and get them excited to try new things.
Magic happens when the little ones jump into the harvest. Summer in New England, when good things to eat are growing in the earth and scuttling at the beach, it the perfect time to get them involved. It’s looking at what’s available at the farm and by the shore that inspires us to plan a family-friendly gathering with friends.
We have made fantastic friends up on the North Shore and love to spend time together and savor lazy summer weekends. As parents, we all have a good sense of humor, big appetites, and we’re never afraid to roll up our sleeves for fun or food. A sip of rosé, a nibble of crusty bread with prosciutto, manchego, and a bite of heirloom tomato keeps us going as harvest and meal preparation become one large playdate.
After a trip to Appleton Farms to pick our own tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, we head to the beach to collect mussels, dig for clams, and haul up our lobster trap. Back home we take stock of the bounty, fire up the grill, and start shucking. Sometimes the dads will stay at the beach with a couple of rambunctious kids to build up appetites with a solid game of tag.
We love to build simple, layered menus of dishes with bold flavors that come together quickly. One of my favorite starters for a party like this is yellow peppers with anchovies. It has an incredibly complex flavor profile thanks to the sweetness of the char-grilled seasonal peppers and anchovies packed in grassy extra-virgin olive oil. This dish in particular makes my heart smile as I ate it every night the week leading up to our wedding. I’m convinced that I had the most glowing, dewy skin that day thanks to all those vitamins and omegas.
Success for a party like this requires being quick to put the little ones to work. One favorite task is letting the kids scrub mussels clean with coarse sea salt, so they can help make a New England take on Belgian mussels in cream. I set them up outside along a table and pass the bucket of mussels and salt down the miniature “production line.” The more hands, the merrier. By the time they make it through, the shells are gleaming. No dirty beards at this party, our mussels are pristine.
While the kiddos work on the mussels, the grown-ups steam lobsters for tarragon lobster rolls and simmer our own version of clam chowder —a fusion of a Rhode Island broth-based chowder with a New England cream-based one. Though we could absolutely do this inside, we try and use our grill (with attached burner) for almost everything, from preparing bread for bruschetta, grilling littlenecks on the half shell with tarragon butter, and giving a smoky blitz to fresh romaine for a Caesar salad. Outside is where the kids want to be and everything feels fluid when we can all be together. Plus, cooking everything outdoors helps keep the indoor kitchen clean and means that the shellfish aromas melt away in the summer breeze.
Another project the kids help with is making strawberry basil lemonade. Older kids could help make it from scratch, but with toddlers it’s even easier to set up a pitcher of high-quality store bought stuff, arm them with a plastic knife, a potato masher, and a pile of fruit and let them at it.
As a mom, I think a lot about roots and memories and what I hope to imprint on my children. They’re still a littler nervous about clams and mussels, so we make a special batch of clam strips with homemade tartar sauce, a little sour from fresh sorrel leaves, just for them. If there’s anything that can convince a toddler to try something new, it’s by breading and frying it.
Cape Ann is rich in visual beauty, but also filled with incredible texture and flavor. I hope that as Max and Charlotte grow up and explore this incredible world, they discover for themselves the scent of tarragon and the sweet, briny bite of a fresh clam. I hope that when they are far from home one day these flavors will transport them back to lazy summer days with AJ and me, surrounded by our amazing friends.
Photos by Nicholas Gang