Growing up as a first-generation Italian, I regarded food not only as nourishment but also as a link to the flavors and traditions of my forebears. In fact, that strong ethnic bond has motivated much of my cooking over the last 50 years. And while the cuisines of other countries have always intrigued me, none has inspired me more than Italian. Whenever I’m in the kitchen, memories of my Sicilian mother or Neapolitan aunt at the stove or of my family around the dinner table come to mind.
Recently, I had one such recollection while I was preparing the pasta dish that is the subject of this post, Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta. As a child, I hated anchovies. The way they looked—dark, shriveled, when packed in salt or rusty and slimy when tinned in oil— totally turned me off even before tasting them. “Yuck,” I would say out of earshot. But I was forced to eat or, at least, try them every time they appeared in one of the dishes on the table. When I would resist, my father would say: “They’re an acquired taste; you’ll eventually grow to like them.” It may have taken some time before the acquisition, but, as usual, my father was correct.
Well a new year is here and thankfully so are we. Looking back on the past few years, we consider ourselves pretty lucky. Since my last blog post, almost nineteen months ago, we’ve been through a lot: Andrew’s Keto diet for medical reasons, where we (I simply had to join him) cumulatively shed almost sixty pounds; a move back east from San Diego to be closer to friends and family; Andrew’s two surgeries, from which he’s recovered quite nicely; and the many challenges and repairs associated with settling into a new house. All this, while dodging the ever present threats of Covid with masking and boosting, might explain why I haven’t blogged for so long.
But the holidays, even with some celebrations being cancelled at the last minute, have put me in a better mood. In fact, the cancellations of some dinners and get-togethers inspired me to get back into the kitchen and celebrate at home with some old and new dishes, which I’ll summarize here.
I had originally planned to begin a series of posts focusing on retro dishes from the 50s and 60s. That plan found its way to the back burner, however, when my brother suggested a recipe for penne with spicy Calabrian shrimp from Giada De Laurentiis’s latest cookbook, Eat Better, Feel Better. Read more
Valentine’s Day 2021, our latest holiday during this pandemic, was possibly our happiest. Perhaps, the mood swing could be contributed to our having secured our first shots of the vaccine a week ago or even to the beautiful two dozen roses that were delivered to our door that morning. But while those events may have played a part, I’d have to say my husband’s suggestion for our Valentine’s dinner deserves most of the credit.
One of my husband’s favorite pasta dishes is orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, which he’s been asking for since the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve made it quite often and have even written about it here. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to procure any broccoli rabe. When he recently suggested using regular broccoli, I shrugged and said it wouldn’t be the same and told him we would have to wait. He replied silently with a sulk.
A few days after this conversation, I opened the fridge to find a bag of pre-washed broccoli florets and a package of bulk sausage that had been resurrected from the bottom of our freezer. When I asked my better half how these items seemed to have appeared so suddenly, he replied, once again silently, with a self-satisfied smile.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I typically let what’s available in my supermarket influence what will be on my table for dinner. Such was the case this weekend when a 50%-off sale on pork shoulder led to the purchase of a five-pound roast and a subsequent search for a recipe with which to prepare it.
In a house with a kitchen dominated by two women, one Sicilian (my mother), the other Neapolitan (my aunt), it was rare that my father took to the stove. Born around Naples and coming to the States when he was around 10 years old, he only cooked twice that I remember. And only once did he share a recipe with me. (I can’t remember why but no one else was at home.) It was a recipe so simple that he must have leaned it as a child back in his home town, Cappacio, in the province of Salerno.
Perhaps the most classic pasta from Puglia, orecchiette, Italian for “little ears,” provide the perfect shape for one of the region’s most popular dishes, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage. Italian food authority Michelle Scicolone explains why in her Williams Sonoma cookbook, Essentials of Italian: “As you toss, both ingredients [broccoli rabe and sausage] become trapped in the hollows of the ear-shaped pasta, making every bite wonderfully flavorful.”
Today’s post is pretty much a repeat of one I did four years ago. It wasn’t until we sat down to supper that my husband asked if we hadn’t had this dish before. Well, I checked after dinner and, sure enough, he was right. There was, however, one major difference. The first time I prepared the dish, I used chicken thighs; last night, I used a whole chicken cut into 10 pieces as suggested by the recipe.
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, we really didn’t dine out that much. My family enjoyed such good food at home that the only reason for going to a restaurant was to give my mother and aunt a break from cooking. More often than not, the restaurants we chose were Italian. In fact, two of our favorites are still going strong in Brooklyn: Michael’s on Avenue R and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. A third favorite, Patsy’s, continues to be popular in Manhattan. All three served then, as they still do, typical Neapolitan dishes that were similar to those we enjoyed at home but, at least in my aunt’s opinion, never quite as good.
In the early 50s, however, southern-Italian restaurants were being challenged by northern-Italian competitors. These new style establishments strove to distinguish themselves and, with some condescension, frowned on the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, peperoncino, and even dried pasta like spaghetti. Butter took the place of olive oil; cream sauces replaced tomato based ones; herbs like rosemary and thyme and spices like saffron and nutmeg lent more nuance than did basil or oregano. Southern dried pasta was replaced either by the fresh egg variety or by risottos, often finished with flair at tableside.