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I awoke to the aroma of a simmering sauce that filled the kitchen and crept into my room and onto my pillow. My ears were tuned to the sound of…plop blurp, plop, blurp. The aroma and the sounds were coming from the tomato sauce…gravy…cooking on the kitchen stove, and it meant it was Sunday.
I sat on the edge of the bed, wiped my eyes, got up and shuffled to the kitchen. Pajamas hanging below my feet, I stretched to tiptoes and peeked over the top of the large white pan on the stove over the small gas flame. The cover was tilted to allow the steamy aroma to escape. I used the “mopine” to lift the cover and look in, though already aware that it was the gravy for Sunday’s pasta. “Edward, what are you doing?”
The gravy was bubbling and popping, releasing with each burst a pocket of vapor with its smell into the atmosphere. Partly exposed meatballs floated along the surface like hot icebergs. A piece of bone, probably pork, was peeking through.
I shuffled like a hockey player to the pantry and the bag of Italian rolls fresh from Crugnale’s Bakery. Dad was reliable. The rolls were warm and soft. I removed one, ripped off a corner, held it between my thumb and two fingers, returned to the pan, swiped it through the gravy and held it up straight, gravy at the top.
Steam rose from the roll as the gravy cooled. To protect my fingers, I twirled the bread just ahead of the dripping lava, allowing the gravy to move to another side of the bread, cooling as it did so…a skill learned in the early years of the Italian family. Though irresistible, it was still too hot for my sensitive, eager tongue. Test it. Touch it lightly with the tip of my tongue. OK. Ready. Cool enough.
The mass was formless, soft in my mouth, wet, moist, full bodied, and rich with the rage of tomato and the hint of garlic and basil… breaded gravy heaven. Time for another dunk, and another and another, piece after piece of bread ripped off, dunk after dunk made with the same caution, taste after taste completed for the thrill of Sunday’s gravy. “You’ll ruin your dinner”.
Now for the meatballs. I needed another corner of bread. There they were, floating; a deep brown color laced with red meant they were done. They had been fried before they were put into the gravy, and sometimes good to eat just after the frying, the simple flavors of garlic and olive oil enveloping the meatball and spilling into the bread. But today, I planned to rescue them from the gravy.
They were ripe. It seemed as if the meatball fit better into a split rather than cut bun. A spoon was sitting in the ladle next to the simmering pot. I lifted out a meatball, dropped it into the bun, and then ladled more of the deep red, shimmering, hot sauce. Blowing the steam away, I resisted the tendency to gulp it down. The meatball was firm, the bread soft and chewy, the gravy almost hot. Some of the gravy spilled out of the bun onto my pajama top. No matter.
I chewed slowly, rolled my tongue around and enjoyed the flavors of the heated, slightly crunchy meatball that married perfectly with the soggy bun and the gravy.
“You’ll ruin your dinner.” I smiled.
* From the book, “Growing Up Italian; Grandfather’s Fig Tree and Other Stories.”
Barking Cats Book Publishers
This recipe is from Giuliano Hazan, author of Every Night Italian and
The Classic Pasta Cookbook. He is also the son of Italian Cookbook author and cooking teacher Marcella Hazan. This is “the” classic Sicilian pasta sauce, combining eggplant and tomato, perfect for the garden abbondanza at this time of year. It is quick – and delicious.
Makes 7-8 1 cup servings (I know what your thinking – who eats just 1 cup of pasta? This recipe is from a “Cooking Light” magazine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1½ pounds coarsely chopped peeled tomato (about 2 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (about 4 cups)
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh basil
6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ¼ inch cubes (about 1 cup)
1 pound spaghetti
1. Place oil and garlic in a large skillet; cook over medium-high heat 30 seconds or until garlic begins to sizzle. Add tomato and salt; cook 15 minutes or until liquid has evaporated. Add eggplant; cover, reduce heat, and cook 15 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Stir in basil; set aside.
2. Cook pasta in boiling water 9 minutes; drain. Toss with sauce and cheese. Serve immediately.
I grew up in a traditional Italian household, with our family living one floor above my grandparents in a three-decker house. I loved the Italian traditions and customs, but because I was so young when my grandparents died, much of those traditions were lost as our family became increasingly Americanized. I gave it little thought until some years later when I first vacationed in Italy. I then realized how much my Italian heritage had lapsed. My newfound pride helped me to realize the importance of that heritage and the necessity to record it.
I started a journal wherein I wrote all I could remember of the early years. I interviewed parents and family. One day I found my grandfather’s diary, written in Italian. It further invigorated my memory. I interspersed those memories with snippets of Italian history and culture. As my four children grew older and were more able to comprehend our heritage, I put those recorded facts together and was able to comfortably discuss my childhood along with the history and customs of Italy.
The journal became my guide. I gave holiday talks to our family. The first was on Christmas Eve at our family’s feast of La Vigilia. I referred to the journal for my story and of how our tradition continued.
The snickering turned to silence and the silence turned to questions. My dissertations are now a part of the family lore.
From those notes, I have written childhood stories. Some have been published.
I regularly contribute to the journal and refer to it often.
Risotto and Chicken Flavored with Balsamic Vinegar
This is another terrific recipe from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy. It is a one-pot dish flavored by mushrooms and balsamic vinegar, the chicken cooks while the rice slowly becomes risotto. Makes 4-6 serving.
About 5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 onions: 1 red, 1 yellow, finely sliced
1 young chicken, about 2½ to 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces
10 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
1 pound 2 ounces Arborio or Carnaroli rice
Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a large pot.
In a heavy casserole heat the oil and butter and sauté the onions over medium heat until they are limp and translucent. Add the chicken and sauté until it is golden. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook over high heat for several minutes. Lower the flame, add the tomatoes, and cook until the chicken is about halfway done, 15 to20 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and let it cook down to about half its original volume. Then add the rice, stirring and coating the rice grains thoroughly. Cook over medium heat as a risotto, adding a new ladleful of boiling broth as each previous one is thoroughly absorbed. Stir frequently to keep the chicken and rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the risotto is made, taste for salt, and serve.
It was never one of my favorite things. Those who knew wondered how I ever entered the specialty of Gastroenterology, one that dealt oftentimes with the field of waste. Whatever, I hated to change diapers, wet or otherwise. The evening I babysat for my grandson Alec was a test.
The ladies went to a baby shower and they asked if I would be the sitter (the only one left). Knowing my dislike for “the change,” his mother prearranged the evening. They went out late, the two year old had been fed, he was tired, he never stained his diaper after a certain hour, and he would be ready for bed shortly after their departure. They left. I was alone and confident. A little play time, and I took him to his crib. He went down without incident. I sat at my computer in the other room.
“He might cry a little,” Michele said, “but just ignore him. He will go sleep. Call me if there is a problem.”
He cried. A little became more, then a lot, so that I could not resist a peek into the room. Was he caught in the crib, did he drop his bottle, was he night- frightened, lonely? I needed to know.
As I approached the room and the smell, I had the answer. I summoned my greater forces and resisted calling for help.
When I picked him up to change him, I realized there was more, much more. The effluent extended beyond the boundaries of the diaper walls. How could it be? This was not supposed to happen! The backside of his pajamas was covered. It was a test.
I disrobed him and in the process soiled his face and hair. He was covered, but smiling. Now for the cleaning process. Thank God for “Wet Ones.”
When I finished, the pile of “Wet Ones” stood a foot high. The manufacturer would be thrilled.
I found another set of pajamas and decided we needed some time together. We went to the television. I could care less about his schedule. It was my reward. We sat together for two hours, watching something, who knows what. He remained. He looked at me periodically, smiled. That was my reward. We bonded. It was all worth it.