An insightful essay by food-and-wine mavens Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca on the evolution of Italian-American cuisine brought me back to growing up in Brooklyn with a family that had survived the Great Depression. Although my parents and aunt were better off than most, having been gainfully employed and comfortably housed, during that dismal era, they nonetheless were deeply affected by it. My mother especially, who frequently recounted woeful stories of having witnessed people on breadlines in her youth, was extremely frugal, despite being the wife of a successful attorney. Moreover, as a family, our weekly dinner menus closely reflected the Depression-Era pattern described in Darrow and Maresca’s essay:
“Pasta three days a week was common; soups and frittate (Italian-style omelets, usually with vegetables or cheese sufficed for two or three other days. Monday, in almost every household, was soup night. Sunday was sacred to un buon’ pranzo. . . antipasto or soup, or at least a broth, followed first by a pasta course, then by a roast meat, most often a chicken. Dessert in the time-honored form of fresh fruit usually concluded the meal.”
Failing to go shopping on Sunday left us with limited choices for supper. Sure, we had plenty of pasta and cheese on hand, but I had served pasta the night before. There were also a few dishes we had in the freezer, but defrosting would take too long. A search through the fridge yielded a fresh supply of eggs that eventually led me to prepare a long-time favorite: Uova in Purgatorio, or Eggs in Purgatory.
A frittata, an Italian omelet, was one of my family’s go-to dishes for Friday suppers or Lenten meals, when as devout Catholics, we needed to abstain from meat. I remember how my aunt hovered over the frying pan in which she had just sauteed the fritatta’s filling, which ranged from onions and peppers to left-over spaghetti to potatoes, to even a hunk of fresh ricotta. Using a wooden spoon, she would gently push the setting eggs towards the center of the pan, allowing the uncooked portion to take their place.
A recent post by veteran food blogger Diane Darrow inspired me to make a 60s recipe from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book, “Eggs a la Tripe.” Have no fear; despite the name there’s no tripe involved. The recipe derives its title from the texture of the dish, which is supposed to resemble the creamy character of the organ meat when it’s been cooked to perfection.
As we sat down to dinner and looked at our plates of richly sauced hard-boiled eggs accompanied by steamed rice, and had our first taste, we felt transported for a while from today’s tempestuous political climate to the Kennedy years in the White House where, if I may use the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, “once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
I’ve always like omelets. Growing up in an Italian household, my introduction to them was through frittatas. Large and made with plenty of eggs and grated Romano, they typically featured fried peppers or potatoes and sometimes even left over spaghetti, which was sautéed until a light crust formed on the pasta.
I remember how my aunt stood over the frying pan, wooden spoon in hand, pushing the eggs towards the center allowing the more liquid portion to fall to the sides. “You can’t rush these,” she’d say. Then came the moment of the flip, where she placed a large plate over the pan and, in a flash, inverted the frittata and then slid it from the plate into the pan to finish cooking. Another few minutes of slow cooking followed during which she’d gently shake the pan. When I asked, how did she know it was done, she replied “il naso,” the nose. “You can smell when it’s done.”
The finished frittata was puffy and light, never dry, and the eggs seemed like pillows to whatever the filling.
Eventually, I discovered the French omelet; totally different from the Italian, but that’s a story for another post.
One morning, not too long ago, over breakfast I saw Lidia Bastianich prepare an asparagus frittata on television. The 10 minute spot evoked memories of my aunt and so I decided to make one for dinner that evening. Below is her recipe along with a link to the video i saw that morning.
I modified the recipe by adding a generous handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano to the eggs before beating. I also flipped the frittata as my aunt did to finish cooking the other side.
Wine Pairing: Falanghina
Lidia Bastianich’s Asparagus Frittata
1 pound pencil-thin asparagus
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 large eggs
1. Remove and discard the tough lower ends of the asparagus. Cut the spears into 2-inch lengths.
2. In a large nonstick skillet, sauté the asparagus spears in olive oil, sprinkling them lightly with salt. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until asparagus is tender but still firm, about 5 minutes.
3. Beat the eggs lightly in a bowl with salt and pepper. Add the eggs to the asparagus, scrambling the mixture lightly with a fork. Cook 2 minutes, or less depending on the texture desired, until eggs are set, and serve immediately.
One of my favorite kitchen memories from growing up is of my aunt Carlotta making frittatas. They would vary in size from small to large, depending on how many of us they were meant to serve. What they were made with, other than eggs, was determined, more often than not, by what needed to be used up in the fridge. Sometimes it would be pasta; other times, potatoes or peppers that were about to turn; still others, by an overabundance of produce like zucchini or tomatoes. The amount of these items also played a role in determining the frittata’s size.
Way before the age of non-stick, my aunt used black-and-white speckled enamelware fry pans, heated with sufficient oil to sauté or sometimes even fry, as with potatoes, the frittata’s filling. As the ingredients cooked, she would beat-up the eggs with a little milk or even water, grated cheese, almost always pecorino-Romano, parsley, salt and pepper.
When the filling was ready, she lowered the flame and slowly poured the beaten eggs into the pan. Then she would watch until the eggs started to set around the edge. With her wooden spoon, she gently pushed the set portion toward the center and let the unset eggs run into the sides of the pan. She continued this process until the top of the frittata was no longer runny yet still moist.
Then the tricky moment. She would go to the cupboard and get out a plate large enough to cover the fry pan. If I tried to talk at that moment, she would shush me. She placed the plate on top of the pan, and then holding the plate in place with one hand and the pan with other, she would swiftly invert the pan to release the frittata. With a confident smile (and maybe a sigh of relief), she would slide the frittata back into the pan to finish cooking.
The top of the frittata was always golden brown, with bits of the filling peeking out, intimating its flavors. My favorite, however, was her spaghetti frittata with its crusty fried pasta coating each side.
Memories like these always come back to me vividly whenever I make a frittata. I feel aunt Carlotta by my side and even seem to hear her “Shush” when I flip mine. Recalling the past is one of the reasons I cook today; as the food does my body, these memories sustain my soul.
For last night’s frittata, I used the leftover pasta alla checca from Sunday night and a leftover sausage from Monday’s cannellini bean and sausages. I roughly chopped the sausage and fried it with the pasta just until the ditali started to crust. I then added ten eggs beaten with about a cup of pecorino Romano and a tablespoon of milk, and seasoned with salt and pepper. And then I cooked it as described above.
Looking the pictures in this post, I think my aunt would have been proud of me and happy to know that she’s still a part of my life.
After several heavy meals, I like to prepare something simple, light, and quick. Such was the case last night, when we came home after 7PM from a day of errands and shopping and wanted to have dinner before 8. The answer was a a frittata made from onions, peppers, eggs, Pecorino, Romano, and flat leaf parsley.
I learned to make frittatas as I was growing up from watching my aunt at the stove. Unlike a French omelette, which should take about a minute to cook, a frittata takes cooks slowly on a low flame. And rather than rolled liked it French counterpart, it’s flipped over to finish cooking.
It’s great served hot, room temperature, and yes, even cold.
3-4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1.5 pounds bell peppers (red, yellow, orange; I don’t like the taste of green) sliced thin
1 large Vidalia onion, sliced thin
10 extra large eggs
2 Tablespoons milk
1/3 cup Pecorino Romano, grated
1/4 cup, Italian parsley, chopped
Salt and Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
In a large sauté pan heat the oil and the garlic clove until shimmering. Add the peppers and onions and sauté over medium high heat, tossing frequently until browned. Remove the garlic clove before it gets brown. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, milk, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper, until thoroughly mixed.
In a 10 inch non-stick pan, transfer the peppers and onions from the sauté pan being sure to capture any remaining olive oil that’s in the pan.
Heat over a low flame and when hot, add the egg mixture. Stir the eggs and the vegetables to combine. Still over a low flame, as the eggs set around the edge, push the set portion into the center and allow the wet potion of the egg mixture to flow into the sides of the pan. Continue to do this, until most of the eggs are set.
When the eggs are almost fully set yet slightly wet on the top, remove from the heat, and then cover with a round pizza pan or plate large enough to cover the pan and flip onto the pizza pan or plate, using oven mitts.
Slide the frittata back into the pan and continue to cook, still over low flame, until lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Slip the cooked frittata onto a cutting board, slice and serve.
I didn’t know what we were going to have for dinner last night until I walked through one of New York City’s premier farmers market in Union Square. As we walked from stand to stand, each with inviting displays of produce, I started to think of a lot of possibilities. But mid-way through the market, I saw a sign touting “the last ramps of spring.”
Ramps are an early springtime vegetable and are a type of wild leek. They have a garlic-like aroma but a rich onion flavor. They’re available for only a brief period in early spring and have become quite popular in restaurants specializing in seasonal cuisine.
I wanted a dish that would highlight their character and at first thought of a simple sauté served over spaghetti. But as we had had pasta the night before, I kept searching for a recipe. It wasn’t long before I found it: Puffy Ramp Frittata.
This is essentially a soufflé omelet, where egg whites are stirred into eggs beaten with the sautéed ramps. It’s started on top of the stove to set the eggs and finished under the broiler where the the whites help the omelet rise.
Served with a salad, some Italian flat bread, and a dry rosé from Provence, it was a perfect meal for a spring evening. Here’s a link to the recipe I used on Serious Eats.