Italian Comfort Food

This is been one of my "bad weeks", as my articles this week probably reflect. Those who know me completely understand this statement. Those who do not can read into it at The Bemused Muse: My Return. I woke up on Monday (waking up is a good thing!) and vowed to put off the day's activities until the morrow. I have made that vow every day this week. Finally, facing a busy weekend, I pushed aside the physical issues and got busy in the kitchen.

The kitchen?

I had a few things I wished to accomplish this past week.

1. Wash and press all the curtains, tapestries and hangings. Included in this would be linens. As we have pets, fur tends to build up around here, and the appearance of those articles would best be described as "fuzzy" at the moment.
2. Make sauce - and thus, make comfort food.

Hence, we come to the kitchen. I can put the washing off another day, but unless I make sauce, the other fresh foods that I purchased last weekend will go to waste. I spent yesterday making marinara and browning sausage (thank you, Better Half, for all your help. You so rock!!) While other people are content to crack open a jar of Prego (or worse), I keep a bit of my heritage and make a vat of the stuff the old-fashioned way. This involved herbs, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a copious amount of standing and stirring. Once it has cooked for several hours, it is proportioned into containers and frozen. No MSG or preservatives in this house! (And the sodium content is very low.)

We can't have a vat of sauce on the stove if we don't have fresh Italian Sausage to go with it - Better Half runs to the local Italian market for me. "Honey, pick up some grated Romano while you're out!"

We can't have a vat of sauce and freshly made sausage in the house if we don't have some lovely tortellini! - Better Half pulls out the pasta pot and dumps in the frozen goodies.

We eat, we enjoy! And then we run to the county foster class. No rest for the weary.

Today I made my eggplant parmigiano - my supreme comfort food. It really is a simple recipe, but it entails vast amounts of work. Eggplants must be sliced (thank you, Better Half), coated in egg, dipped in flour, and friend bit by bit. (Two good sized eggplants take me about an hour of constant work, or two hours of working while taking small breaks to relieve the pain in my lower legs.) After being friend, they drain on paper bags for another good hour. Assembly soon follows, layering marinara sauce, eggplant, cheese, and sausage bits. Surplus servings (I usually get three or four out of two eggplants) are frozen, and one is cooked the day it is made. Afterwards, Better Half and I scrub the oil and flour from the frying pans, stovetop, the counters, cabinets, floor, wall, dogs, ourselves, and anything else that needs it. No one said this wasn't a messy recipe.

Ahhhhhhh - heaven has nothing on an Italian kitchen.

My Dad, if he is reading this, might just frown a bit. It might be because he isn't here to enjoy it... but also because I am half-Hungarian and rarely cook dishes so loved by that culture. It isn't that I can't cook Hungarian food - I can - but rather because many of the recipes begin with "Take 2 pounds lard..."

Eggplant parmigiano is my favorite food. I may adore lamb, or gnocchi, or chicken papikash, but the eggplant takes me back to my Nonna's kitchen. It evokes a flood of wonderful childhood memories - my Nonna and I playing kickball in the driveway behind her building, or of sitting on the floor of her apartment, a bowl of creamed wheat and a coloring book at hand. And I find myself recalling more - the nap of the rug and how it felt so strange under my fingers (from this comes my love of Berber), or the way her kitchen always glistened in the morning as the sun came through the apartment windows. I remember the tick of her anniversary clock on the buffet in her tiny dining room. And, most importantly, I can remember her hugs and the scent of her skin. I recall how soft her arms were to the touch. I can hear her voice as she chats with me while she works. As I complete each step of my recipe, her words echo from the past... salt these, and then press them so the extra water comes out; only flour lightly so the oil doesn't get dirty; don't use too much flavor so you taste the eggplant and the sauce. I never actually helped her to cook; I was too young. I usually wandered into the kitchen to ask for more milk or a biscotti, and then toddled away again to amuse myself with a book or toy. In my childhood innocence, Nonna would always (always, always!) be there and when I was older, she would teach me all the secrets.

When I grew older, Nonna moved away to be with her daughter in Missouri, and later she relocated back home to Steubenville to be with her other daughter. She died in the early 1980's, and I, finally old enough to want to learn how to cook, was left with a Nonna-sized hole in my heart back in California. How could Nonna go away like that? How could she possibly want to be with my cousins and aunts when she had me? For a very long time, I hated Steubenville. I hated seeing the post-mark on envelopes. I despised hearing about her times apart from California (after she had moved away.) I wanted her back with me, and I wanted nothing that was imitation-Nonna.

My mother is not an imitation-Nonna - she is my Mum. She is very different from her mother, yet they share so many good qualities. My Mum is also an excellent cook, but she was Emeril before Emeril ever thought to say "Bam!" There is nothing my Mum can not recreate in the kitchen, and she is a master of her skill. Yet, despite her spicy sauces and meatballs (which I can never seem to duplicate), the one thing that I wished she would make me was my Nonna's marinara sauce. It seems that no one can do the recipe right. I don't even try, preferring to use my own invented recipe. My Aunt does cook the recipe like Nonna used to make, but she won't tell me how it is done - I suppose she fails to see why it is so important to me. Alas for her.

Having just moved here only a year ago, I find that I am kicking myself for not spending more time cooking with Mum. It isn't that I didn't want to spend time with her in the kitchen - but she is used to cooking alone, and my presence distracts her (usually causing her to forget to add an ingredient. Never, never, EVER ask if you can bake Christmas cookies with my mother!)

Which brings me to my last kitchen project - pizzelles. No one makes pizzelles like my mother! They are a thing of absolute pride during the holidays. I am not an anise fan (bleh), but her pizzelles are the best! She sent me some this past Christmas, and I brought them to church - even the little old Italian ladies raved over her recipe. So, when she came out this past summer and asked if there was anything special I wanted for my birthday - I begged for a pizzelle iron. Done! I have desired to make pizzelles all week, and baring crippling pain, I will make those cookies! I have decided upon lemon, as I will never be able to eat more than one anise flavored one (licorice, bleh.) Mum will get a mailing of half the batch, and I'll farm the rest out to the class this weekend (one batch makes several dozen.)

So I leave you - I am off to cook some more.

PS - the eggplant was delicious.

4 responded with...:

Anonymous said...

what a lovely blog you have!
i love pizelles....i spent 10 years with an an italian boyfriend with a mother and grandmothe who were champion pizelle makers!!!
thank you for your kind words on my sunday scribblings. i'll have to look at that link you included.
big floury, sugary hugs,

MJJ Insider said...

Oh gosh, Autrice, I have been sick for a week and haven't been able to eat anything and omg your entry made my tummy growl so much.

I absolutely LIVE on pasta.

AscenderRisesAbove said...

It all looks quite wonderful; would love to visit your place; enjoyed peeking around your blog; you certainly have a wide range of interests which is always refreshing. I can't believe how much you have done with an eblogger layout!!

Anonymous said...


I was doing a web search
for a pizelle recipe when
I came upon your site.
I used the word Nonna - pizelle in my Google search, thinking I would
come across a great recipe.
I am still on the hunt, but I came
to your blog and stopped to read
every single word....

Awwwwwwww I can't even tell you
how moved I am in feeling your
connection to your Nonna.

My son is 22 and serving in the
US Air Force. He was recently
sent to S. Korea for a year tour.
I promised him some homemade treats.... and pizelle's are
at the top of the list.
I have had an iron for many many years, but was thinking that maybe
there is a better recipe out there.
We are FANS of an anise old style ones. :)

I wanted to share this writing that I have had for SO many years...
it's about a Grandma and I hope it
wraps your heart in love that your Nonno had for you....

Deb Estep

Why Was She Here?

"When I faced the loss of my dear
Grandmother Rose, I asked the
question, 'Why was she here?' for I could
not comprehend a day without her
gentle smile and caring touch. The loss was
so painful. But as days and months passed, I
found that the pain I had felt began to
transform itself into something completely new.
The empty hole in my life was slowly
filled in with a warmth. As I lived again and
worked myself into a daily routine,
I began to understand that my successes
and achievements were her pats on the back,
her hugs when I was discouraged and her
stories of her dreams and hopes for her
children and grandchildren when I had none.

So, the question 'Why?' became clear,
I realized that my life was an extension of
hers. When there is a hole someplace in the
world, I believe a warmth eventually fills it.
When there is poverty, a richness of spirit
eventually comes to help.
I believe we are here for each other; to lift,
to encourage, to dream. Without that kind of giving,
we cease to exist. So, as Rose gave to me, I try to
give to others in my work, in my personal life,
in my charity. For me, that is why.
That is harmony."

Marlee Matlin
Academy Award winning
actress for her part in
Children of a Lesser God