Growing up Italian

May 1st, 2008

Eating from the simple Italian pantry

I have always been proud of the fact that I have strong Italian roots and I find that when I speak of my family the story is almost always centered on something that happened in the kitchen over a good Italian meal. What I appreciate the most is I learned to enjoy simple pure, authentic ingredients. No matter what the time of year, cooking at our house meant the weekly trek to the West side Market in Cleveland. We’d always get the staples; see below, along with whatever fresh vegetables were available. We’d also get some imported meats or a fresh sausage, hand made in front of us, and of course, cheese. Our trip to the market was made faithfully despite our rather large well stocked pantry. We ate simple home cooked meals created from raw ingredients including lots of fresh market foods all the time.

So, eating and cooking Italian does start with picking out pure simple ingredients. For my family it meant maintaining minimum number of staple ingredients, any one of which might be called a basic Italian food group.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Ours was often from the bulk barrel imported from Italy. I guess we were unable to get the expensive imported varieties, so when I traveled to Italy the first time I remember thinking I had never tasted such olive oil! It was bold and grassy and made me want to eat it alone without adding vinegar on my salads. It is influentially tastier than butter to me.

Tomatoes: When they were not fresh in season we bought canned. My dad would proudly describe the farm in Italy where they were grown and canned when tomatoes were at peak, making them better than just any canned tomato.

Parsley: Flat leaf is what I recommend. And though it is easy to grow in season, it is widely available year round in markets due to local green house productions. It is undeniably a requisite for simple Italian food.

Garlic: There are many varieties and I look forward to garlic season when the interesting ones appear at farmers markets. My one consistent belief is that the sprout, especially when green, should be removed before chopping because it is the sprout that imparts bitterness and makes it difficult to digest.

Cheeses: Especially a good Parmigiano-Reggiano; in our fridge my mom kept a large Tupperware container of this good stuff, already grated! Cheese was not as much a main ingredient as it was used to add a punch of flavor in small amounts. Provolone Picante stands out as a super star that I use regularly today. Unlike the cylindrical domestic variety often confused with bulk mozzarella because of its bland flavor, the picante has a hard rind that surrounds a spicy, lemony-tang flavor with an herbaceous background, perfect for finishing Italian dishes.

Lemons were another staple in the produce bin of our fridge, along with the seasonal vegetables we’d get on market day. I don’t think my Mom knew what “real-lemon” was from the green bottle, that is. Fennel at our house was as common as celery is in most American households. I know it is seasonal, and there must have been times we couldn’t get it, but in my memory it was always there!
Pasta: Of course we always had pasta around. This would be mostly dried pasta as I recall, and even when the fresh stuff was sold commercially, my folks stuck with the dry varieties they had learned to trust. My mom would do homemade ravioli quite often, and that must have contributed to my taste for making it fresh now. I do like some dried pastas and use them regularly, too.

These basic ingredients or staples of our family kitchen together actually make up a meal that my dad would whip up pretty regularly. He called it pasta aioli (pronounce “i- yoy”) which distinguished it from the French garlic mayonnaise classic, spelled the same and pronounced, “ay-oh-lee.” I was corrected many times during my early culinary training when I would give my dad’s pronunciation. Anyway, Bob Sr. would put EVOO in a pan, just to warm it with the chopped garlic being careful not to brown it or let it cook too fast. Then he’d stir in pepper flakes, and many times, added canned anchovies packed in oil that would melt into the sauce. He finished with fresh chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon before tossing it in the pasta, usually fettuccini. Grated Parmesan went on at the table usually. This was dinner allot in our house, a sort of poor man’s Carbonara meets mac and cheese. And with the exception of anchovies, it is a meal most kids would remember, Italian or not.

Occasionally dad would dress up this family recipe with fresh tomatoes or chicory and even fresh spinach, making a primavera style pasta. And my mom would sometimes fry up a white fish to go with the pasta. In any case family meals were almost always accompanied by raw fennel. I believe one of the best ways to begin and end a meal so heavily leaden with garlic is with sweet raw fennel. Sprinkled with a little salt, this crisp vegetable promises a light anise flavor that not only cleanses the palate but aides in digestion.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as a side dish or light dinner meal. You will notice my recipe is a bit different from my dad’s described here, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind. I suggest you use it whenever you are thinking of macaroni and cheese—for a little variation.

BOB SR.’S PASTA AIOLI (i-ohoy!)
1 lb dry pasta, cooked in boiling salted water until just el dente
EVOO as needed
1 head of garlic, cleaned, peel, remove sprout, chopped or sliced
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
4 oz anchovies & oil
½ cup flat leaf parsley, washed, dried, roughly chopped
½ cup parmesan cheese, grated Method: Cook pasta; coat with small amount of EVOO set aside.
Place ¼ cup EVOO over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add ¾ garlic and all anchovies with their oil. When garlic is translucent, add parsley, lemon juice and zest. Add in remaining raw garlic pasta and toss.
Serving Suggestions: Add 1 pint washed cherry tomatoes to sauce when adding the anchovies and garlic; and or add 1lb washed baby spinach. Accent with dry cured olives. Eat along side crusty pan fried white fish or quickly grilled chicken breast.

Complete the dish with a salad of fresh shaved fennel or fennel sticks, lightly salted with sea salt.