The Map to Italy is in the Kitchen. | Blogs
I always thought that my Nana was a little scary growing up. Actually, I thought all of her family was a little frightening. In the kitchen, she was all business, and when things didn't quite go her way, you might as well have found a rock and hid yourself under it. The only time I remember Nana baking was when I was little and she attempted to make brownies. They were the most difficult items to eat, I didn't dare tell her that, as clearly she was pretty upset by the incident. So, she said forget baking and stuck to the savory. Since then, her only successful sweet dish has been "Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake" which in itself is iffy. Sometimes she makes it and it's great, other times, I think she may have lost her marbles.
The other part of crazy I witnessed growing up was watching Nana consume a meal. Lobster especially, and as I am writing this I am praying that no one will ever show it to her, it may get me voted off the island-with a wooden spoon. She would start with a pile but tell you she was only going to eat that one. Then the dis-assembly began which showed absolutely no mercy. Nana really felt passionately about her sea creatures and showed it with every crack she made. There was lots of butter, bits flying everywhere and some noises that frankly I wasn't sure about. I could have left the table, I could have looked away but it was almost impossible to do that. I was addicted to the whole scene, paralyzed by the strangeness of it. This behavior, by the way, has not changed, in her eighties she continues to be the champ at the kitchen table, eating food like it's her last meal. When it's something she loves, you know it. When I told Nana that I was doing the dessert for the "Lobster Chef of the Year Event" I thought she was going to fall off her chair over the phone. I could just hear the excitement in her voice.
It may seem that I am poking fun at her a little bit, and maybe I am, but it's with all the admiration that I have in my bones. Nana, loves food and she loves to talk about food. Her passion for eating and cooking is what has inspired me in the kitchen time and time again, even if she doesn't know it. See, my culinary life didn't begin with Nana teaching me all the basics of Italian food because Italians, don't really have the patience for that. I learned by listening and by watching, sometimes I would ask and my mother or Nana would tell me how to comprise a certain dish. It's almost as if I learned how to cook through osmosis and of course, trial and error. My family, which is shocking to most was built on traditions. The tradition that I love the most, however, is Nana talking about her parents, who came here from Italy years ago and brought with them an array of stunningly delicious and simple food. No, I was not there to taste it but the way Nana talks about it, well, it has to have been good. The one dish that stands out more than anything else is sauce and meatballs, Nana has been talking about this for years.That is where Italy begins in your kitchen. Red sauce is the beginning of so many fantastic dishes and mastering it, really is dire in learning how to cook a good meal.
Nana's philosophy is that every great Italian dish starts with a simple recipe, preferably handed down from someone you love. It should have no more than five or six ingredients. People always think that the secret is to use lots of herbs. Nope. It's to use one herb so that you can taste it in the sauce. Also, you never leave your sauce sitting there for hours and hours on end. I have heard stories of people leaving it for two days, adding sugar to it, the whole bit. Never ever ever.....ever. Do that. What I am about to share with you is the masterful recipe that makes my family swoon. You are going to look at it and think it's boring, you may even second guess my cooking abilities based on the lack of ingredients but trust in me, when you cook it and eat it, you are going to become a believer. It will change your life.
Fresh Tomato Sauce
15-20 vine ripened tomatoes
1/2 of a large onion
6-7 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup fresh Basil
1/4 cup meatball grease (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Prepare the tomatoes by scoring the bottom and removing the portion where the vine stems out of. Place them all on a baking sheet and coat with olive oil. Sprinkle a little salt on the top portion of them. Leave the tomatoes in the oven until it is clear that the skin is coming off and they start to split. Usually around 20-25 minutes. Let them cool. Remove the skin and set the tomatoes aside.
In a large saucepan coat with just enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Heat on medium and throw the onion in. Cook until soft. Add garlic and cook for about thirty seconds. Then toss in all the tomatoes. Mush them with your wooden spoon. Add tomato paste. Then salt and pepper to taste. At this point you can throw in the meatball grease & meatballs if you so desire. Simmer on low for about an hour. Prior to serving, add the basil and toss.