On the surface, the two couldn’t have been more different. My Italian grandmother, reserved and stern, was someone who I only came to know through cooking. I grew to understand her as I came to understand how she ran her kitchen. My Mississippi grandmommy, though, was outgoing and fun. We didn’t need our mutual love of food to allow us to connect, it just made the love more special.
But beneath the surface, they shared many similarities. Both ran busy kitchens for busy households, and the values they brought to their work were very similar. Both had little money and were masterful at their ability to squeeze every bit of value out of every ingredient they had available. This skill, passed on to me through them both, served me extremely well in my restaurant.
My grandmothers raised their own food. Noni had every variety of tomato, especially the one known for its source, San Marzano. On a visit to Italy once, my grandfather’s good friend had asked if there was anything he wanted to take back to the states and without hesitating Nono said arugula seeds and San Marzano seeds. Nono prided himself in teaching people the value of both and nobody in his circle had either in their gardens.
Those seeds produced wonderful product back home in Revere. Best of all, Noni used the tomatoes from San Marzano to put up tomato paste and tomatoes enough to last the winter. My Mississippi grandmommy wasn’t as interested in tomatoes as she was in the more Southern favorites like okra, peaches, figs and pecans. Noni made delicious dishes with vegetables like minestrone with cannelloni beans. Grandmommy made a similar dish using black-eyed peas and okra, peppers, tomatoes, onions over her crispy corn sticks. How special it might have been if the two could have met and spent some time in the kitchen together.
Every week Noni would go to Phillips chicken house in Maverick Square, East Boston, and she always selected the plumpest bird on the last shelf which Mr. Phillips climbed a ladder to reach. On her farm in Mississippi, grandmommy only needed to go into the yard and fetch a bird, snap its neck and make the most delicious Southern fried chicken. She did this cooking on an old black stove that was wood fired, just like Noni’s. Grandmommy baked every day, turning out amazing pies with the peaches, berries, pecans and sweet potatoes that were growing around her. Noni was not into baking. I suppose having to take care of 10 kids was more than enough to think about. Grandmommy’s kids were older and had gone off to do their own “liven’,” as she would put it. Both my grandmothers were naturally good cooks and homemakers.
When Mr. Phillips threw in some chicken feet as a present for Noni, it thrilled her. They added the most delicious flavor to her soup. I can still see the huge pot simmering on her stove with the feet sticking out of the broth. She would skim the fat off and save it to cook the livers in. They were so tasty on a good crusty bread after she put them through her grinder. No food processors back then! Grandmommy saved everything, too. She raised watermelon and so there was always plenty of it to make pickled watermelon rind preserves, which were better than any pickle I had ever tasted. If there were leftovers from breakfast she would make a hash with grits and bacon and sausage and mix in any vegetable that she had. It always tasted fresh and delicious. I can only imagine if I had asked her for a recipe that she would say “There is no right way or wrong way, it’s whatever you have, don’t waste anything.” Same as Noni!
If I have a busy week, I sometimes buy a store-roasted chicken. With some rice and broccoli, it makes a good meal. After carving the meat off the bird for sandwiches or salad the next day, I will break up the carcass and make a stock with some carrot, celery, onion and fresh herbs. I always cook more rice than I need, using the excess to add to soup or to make a rice pudding. A favorite is the Greek soup called ‘Avgolemono,’ which is simply broth with lemon and rice. It feels like magic how, with all the essential elements at my fingertips, the broth with rice and a few lemons squeezed in makes a delicious and simple soup.
I use my leftover bread for bread pudding, bread crumbs, homemade croutons, crostini with simple toppings like chicken liver, tomato and bean puree. As I learned from my grandmothers, when I prepare a meal I always make more than I need so that I can create new and exciting dishes with the extra food. Calling them leftovers puts a negative spin on it, so I like to think of it as “painting with food.” The fridge filled with containers of ingredients like rice are my palette. The painting I create is the meal I prepare. On Sunday, I took some “leftover” Bolognese sauce and spooned it in a casserole, then made two patties of leftover mashed potatoes and placed them over the Bolognese sauce, baking them for about 10 minutes. Each potato pattie was then topped with a poached egg and sprinkled with some fresh arugula salad on top for a delicious breakfast.
People are always commenting on how quickly I can put together a meal. Here are some helpful hints. It is techniques like these that allow me to prepare meals in a jiffy.
Be a speedy cook with a refrigerator bursting with “paints.”
My freezer is stuffed with several containers of all kinds of tomato sauce like marinara, Bolognese or Alfredo. I also have containers of broth, most recently turkey from Thanksgiving. When I make pie dough I roll out three or four and line pie shells with the dough and stack them. With the dough all ready to go, it is easy to turn out pies in record time.
Keep a fresh supply of granola topping in plastic bags for a quick fruit crumble as well as breakfast treat.
Pancetta is something that adds a lot of flavor to dishes and I buy a pound of it and grind it and separate it in small plastic bags containing about three tbsp. each. It is great for a quick tomato sauce or veggie dish for a smoky flavor.
When I make my olive oil cakes or gingerbread or any pound cake, lately coconut, I make several small ones in my special pan and freeze most of them to go with a nice spot of tea or quick dessert.
In the fridge I have a bag of fresh herbs, especially thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, sage all so good for meat and poultry. We all love pesto in our family so there is always a jar in the fridge to use for a quick pasta dish or to add flavor to soup.
The same is true of salad dressing, it’s good to make a large batch and have extra in the refrigerator. Make a Caesar dressing with anchovy, lemon, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil, Dijon mustard and keep a big container in the fridge. For a simpler one, just use lemon, garlic, dijon mustard. These can be used for marinating meat or fish or for salads. Having them ready makes life simpler and makes you a powerful cook. To step it up a notch, as some might call it, keep your greens cleaned and chilled, ready to go.