I'm the youngest of all the cousins. Growing up Italian in New Jersey you can imagine all the cooking that took place. Whether it was a birthday, a holiday, a graduation, a wedding, or an ordinary weekend, we were always cooking. I remember each member of the family had their "specialty." My mother had all the recipes that she had learned from her father, like battered fish, or peppers and eggs. I remember my aunt’s famous stuffed mushrooms, the recipe my cousin, Jen, shared with you on Tuesday and that we still make every Christmas eve.
But I'd have to say that Grandma Rose won the award. I'm pretty sure we all learned to cook at least one dish from her at one point or another. Chicken cutlets were always a favorite of mine. I remember my father telling me stories of his mother sending him to school, and he could always tell his lunch bag from the rest of the kids' bags. He didn't have peanut butter and jelly, or a ham sandwich. He had chicken cutlet sandwiches or meatball subs, and would always have a grease mark on the outside of his brown paper bag.
One specific memory I have isn’t an Italian dinner; it is breakfast: Grandma Rose's poached eggs. She would wake up around 3 a.m. (or so it seemed) and not only would you smell the garlic from whatever she was preparing for dinner, you’d be treated to her poached eggs on toast. And they were the best poached eggs you ever tasted.
As I got older, my mother would let me help in the kitchen (other than the dreaded "will you set the table" that all kids are asked to do). I actually got to help cook! I was so excited and remember thinking, "Wow, I'm really good at this.” I don't know if it was because all the memories it brought back of our wonderful family gatherings, or if it was because it made me feel useful, or if it was just another excuse for us to talk about our day, life and good times in general. Whether she would let me roll the meatballs, stir the gravy, or bread the chicken, we always had a wonderful time in the kitchen.
When I moved out I called home frequently. “Mom, what’s in the meatball stew? What kind of breadcrumbs am I supposed to get? Do I really need to use veal?" I was a vegetarian for about nine years, which I’m sure upset the Gods of Italian Recipe Town since everything is made with ground meat, veal or sausage. Let's just say I perfected eggplant parmigiana.
I am no longer a vegetarian, but have made a lot of the recipes my own by substituting. This was what was fun for me—taking some great meal and making it something different just by changing one or two ingredients.
Cooking in my family was very much "little bit of this, little bit of that," which is how I came up with a lot of my own recipes. When I lived alone, it morphed into what I could make out of what I already had in my fridge and my pantry closet. Some meals were awesome, and some meals were a little shy of awesome. To me and my family, food equals love. Cooking a great meal is how I show I love someone. Just ask my husband who gained 25 pounds in our first year dating. I remember saying, “I'm sorry, this is how I love.” Then I remember saying, “Wait, no I’m not. You're lucky to eat this well. Welcome to the family!”
The memories I have of family gatherings and cooking in the kitchen are the ones that will stay with me forever. Every time I make a recipe from our family, it takes me right back to where I was when I first ate it. These are the memories that I cherish most and look forward to sharing with Elliot one day.
Grandma Rosie's Meatball StewI loved when Grandma Rose would make meatballs for any recipe. I always enjoyed when she would come to Tennessee and cook breakfast. She’d ask, “You want breakfast?” If you said, “No,” she’d say, “OK, you want a meatball?” The answer was always "YES!"
3 cans of tomato sauce (recommend San Martzano tomatoes)
1 clove of garlic (finely chopped)
1 large yellow onion (sliced thin)
1 can of Del Monte peas
2 potatoes (cut into bite-sized pieces)
1 cup parmesan cheese
In a large pot, drizzle 2 teaspoons of olive oil and heat on medium/high. Add chopped garlic and sliced onion. Sauté until onions are translucent. Add the tomatoes to the onion and garlic mixture. Once the mixture is heated (about 10 minutes) add the potatoes and cover pot with lid. Lower heat to medium and simmer until potatoes are almost cooked through (about 30 minutes).
This is a good time to make the meatballs!
2 pounds ground meat (beef, turkey, pork—or you can use a combo of each)
½ large yellow onion (finely diced)
1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
2 tablespoons parsley
1 cup white bread torn by hand into bite-sized pieces (Italian breadcrumbs may be substituted)
½ cup parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
Combine above ingredients in a bowl until mixed together. Roll into 2-ounce balls (a little less than the size of your palm). Place the meatballs into a skillet with two tablespoons olive oil over medium heat and sauté until golden brown on all sides. Do not worry about cooking the meatballs all the way through; they will finish cooking in the sauce. Put aside meatballs on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Once the potatoes are almost cooked through, add the meatballs. Lower heat to medium low, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
Add peas at the last minute just to heat through.
Top with parmesan cheese and serve with crusty bread.