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.”
Last night, throwing caution to the wind, I finally made a frittata from left-over rigatoni and meatballs and even a hard-boiled egg. The egg found its way into this omelet when I mistook one of my husband’s hard-boiled eggs, stored in an egg carton, for a fresh one and tried to crack it open. Well, I thought, as long as I was taking a chance with the pasta, what harm could adding the egg do? Now, I’ve made plenty of pasta frittatas before, some of them chronicled on this blog. None, however, featured something like pasta with meatballs.
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.
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.