CHIAVARI, Italy - Even before the idea for this blog was fully developed, I knew I wanted the Auntie Pasta page to be about food, but not necessarily about recipes. Since then I have included some recipes on this blog, and in going through my collection the other day, I found there were other recipes that I would like to share with you as well.
|Where it all Began - Piansano, Italy|
What got me thinking about recipes was a review of new cookbooks in the New York Times, including one cookbook that claims to teach you what your grandmother didn’t. Grandmothers seem to play an important part in the cooking lives of a lot of people, including me.
My Grandmother was a goddess in the kitchen. I can still taste her tripe in tomato sauce with that perfect hint of nutmeg, her crisp roasted chicken with lemon and the roasted potatoes she served with it, the plump Roman artichokes stuffed garlic slivers and mintuccia from the old country and the list goes on. Yet I never saw her open a cookbook. In fact I don’t think there were any cookbooks in her house. She just seemed to know what to do. Like most women of her generation, she learned to cook when she was a kid by watching and doing what she was told.
As you can imagine, preparing food was serious business in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t a lot of it and there was no messing around in the kitchen. She carried that philosophy with her to the New World as a young bride and mother, and when she told me to watch the pot of simmering snails on the stove and make sure none of them escaped, you’d better believe my five year old eyes were glued to that pot lid.
|Culinary Training 101|
By the time I was given the responsibility of guarding the snails, I had eaten, and helped prepare all types of greens, tripe and octopus, rabbit and venison, I had rolled meatballs, cut fresh pasta into strips of fettucine, chopped parsley and knew the difference between regular mint and the mintuccia that Aunt Mary sent from Italy. I was a cook in training, I just didn't know it.
Sometimes it was difficult not to start playing with the gooey mess that water and flour make before it becomes pasta dough, or pressing ground meat around my ten little fingers and playing an imaginary hamburger piano. Bit it didn't take much to keep me in line though; a look would usually do the trick. I guess that was the culinary discipline part of my training.
When I was a young bride I would often call my mother and ask her for recipes. She was not a patient person and her instructions were short and to the point. Sometimes I would get recipes from my aunts, scribbled on scraps of paper with vague proportions and approximate instructions. They were my mentors, and even though I was young and had a lot to learn, they treated me as an equal, cooks talking to another cook.
|You Get a Little Bigger - You Do a Little More|
Long before Gourmet Magazine and Food and Wine, before Julia Child made culinary history with her French Chef television series, and long, long before the advent of celebrity chefs, that is how we all learned to cook.
A certain amount of knowledge was always assumed and the key points of a dish were often all you needed, i.e. clean and boil the artichokes before you season them and then put them in the oven to bake. It was usually the small, but crucial, details that resulted in being able to eat what you have cooked rather than throw it away. My first solo flight into the wonderful world of artichokes was proof of that. Leaving out the "boil them first" part resulted in total disaster. But I learned.
|Easy Peasy Merluzzo ai Capperi|
Now that I live in Italy I like to try the recipes I find on the back of boxes of pasta and packages of things I buy, but I’ve hesitated to include them in this blog because the instructions are often vague and the measurements not just approximate, but sometimes in code. But now I think I’m wrong about that. You are cooks and if we speak cook to cook, I think it will all work out. With that in mind, here is a Sicilian fish recipe that uses frozen codfish, but you can use any firm, white fish, fresh or frozen.
Defrost the fish. Chop a bunch of parsley and two garlic cloves. In a frying pan heat 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil and when it is barely hot, add half of the chopped parsley, garlic and the fish. Season with salt and pepper. When the fish filets have cooked on one side, turn them over. Add ½ glass of dry white wine and when it has evaporated add a can of chopped tomatoes.
|Codfish with Capers|
Let the fish and tomatoes cook for about 15 minutes and then add the remaining parsley and garlic, a pinch of dried oregano and two teaspoons of capers. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. The recipe suggests serving the fish with mashed or boiled potatoes but I prefer serving it with white rice.
Three short suggestions: (1) use capers Don't leave them out; (2) use capers that have been preserved in brine, not in salt, and rinse them well; and (3) I found that if you fry a sliced onion in the olive oil before you add the parsley, garlic and fish, it gives the dish another (tasty) layer of flavor.