Articles by Author
Are olives an aphrodisiac? My research suggests they are not, but for Andrea Pupek and Fabio Cimicchi, they most certainly were. Andrea’s Global MBA thesis project, a comprehensive marketing plan for Fabio’s family olive oil business, resulted in love, marriage and now a vibrant olive oil export business, Caselle Italian Imports.
Andrea’s mother knew early on that Andrea would travel the globe when at 13 she became a student ambassador of People to People. Her parents provided her with roots and wings. Her roots were firmly planted in Western Massachusetts, and her wings took her to Italy.
Family’s pierogi ‘factory’
Andrea recalls the strong ties her family had to her paternal grandmother, her babci. Her favorite memory with her babci is what she calls “the Pupek family pierogi factory.” As with many family recipes, none were ever written for the pierogis. Andrea had the foresight when her babci started forgetting things at 92 years old to document and photograph the pierogi factory. A legitimate recipe now exists, and an indelible memory was forged between Andrea, her sister and their babci.
More from Zester Daily:
Family values were the centerpiece of Andrea’s upbringing. Even after her parents divorced they continued to celebrate the holidays together. This exceptional situation of support, love and respect was one Andrea would find among the olive groves in Orvieto, Italy.
Andrea’s thesis work took her to Italy — to the Cimicchi family — to develop a business and marketing plan for the export of their olive oil. She never imagined that one of the Cimicchis would become her husband or that she would call Orvieto home.
The transition she says was easy.
Fabio’s family’s values echoed hers. His family is emotionally and physically close, resembling what one might imagine a prototypical, multi-generational Italian family to be. Sunday lunches are a ritual. It anchors the family solidly in their generational traditions of meals that are simple, but long and delightful. There are multiple courses that include some form of roasted chicken, potatoes and, of course, a homemade pasta dish.
Marriage of family traditions
At the holidays, Andrea integrated her family’s Christmas cookie-making traditions into the Cimicchis’ traditions. When Andrea and Fabio traveled to the United States for the holidays, she made sure to include one of the Cimicchi family’s Christmas Eve favorites – chocolate spaghetti – in her family’s festivities. Imagine spaghetti with olive oil, chocolate, walnuts and sugar paste. Now that’s a decadent tradition worth importing.
The love affair has produced much more than the fusion of family values and food traditions. It has also resulted in the creation of Caselle Italian Imports. The Cimicchi family owns more than 195 acres of land, planted with more than 2,000 olive trees.
Le Caselle is located the between Orvieto and Castel Viscardo in the Umbria region, which is known for its olive oil and is frequently referred to as the green heart of Italy.
The Cimicchi family’s ties to Le Caselle date as far back as the 1700s when the family came to care for the land under Knight Guiscardo, who was himself hired to protect the land for the church. The land changed hands a few times among a small group of families, but Fabio’s great-grandfather Alessandro ended up owning the majority of the original Castel Viscardo estate. In 1984, Fabio’s parents purchased the rest of the family land that makes up the original Le Caselle estate from Uncle Guiseppe Cimicchi, with the goal to produce wine and olive oil.
Family’s olive oils
The Cimicchis produce two types of olive oil for sale: Madonna Antonia, which is made from 100% moraiolo olives, and Olio delle Caselle, their signature Umbrian blend. The blend is a closely held, secret family recipe perfected over several generations, using just the right proportions of moraiolo, leccino, frantoio and rajo olives. Olio delle Caselle has a golden color with a tinge of green.
When tasting the olive oil, Fabio told me to slurp the olive oil along with some air. Adding the air emulsifies the oil and allows it to spread across your entire mouth for a full taste bud experience. The taste was smooth and fresh, with a little spicy aftertaste. Delicious. It is perfect on young greens and tomatoes, in salad dressings and soups, and as a dip for crusty Italian bread.
With the matrimony of Andrea and Fabio, and the loving support of close family friends, Caselle Italian Imports was born. Andrea put her masters thesis to work, sharing the amazing fruits of the Cimicchis’ labors with the wider world. Caselle Italian Imports also offers other Italian specialty products, such as traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.
Main photo: Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek
Let the ingredients speak. It is something my Nana always urged. What better time than late summer and early fall to allow your garden to dictate your menu.
If you are growing vegetables, much of the wait is over. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions and much more are streaming in. Herbs, too, are abundant and running wild — tarragon, basil, lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. The list is almost endless.
More from Zester Daily:
I want to hoard. I am afraid to eat it all for fear there will be no more. But I resist that instinct and step into the garden and let it speak to me. What is ripe right now? What can I preserve for the January meals? What do I want to eat and make right now with my garden bounty? And herein lies the secret — nothing is better than garden-to-table menu making and recipe creation.
Each day I peruse the garden and decide what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner. With the abundant zucchini and onions, and freshly laid chicken eggs, I whip up a simple frittata finished off with assorted herbs. It does the trick for lunch. A dinner could be a lamb burger, prepared with mint and rosemary, and served with an arugula and watermelon salad, and corn on the cob. Perhaps, I will turn tomatoes into a luscious sauce with basil and a touch of cream and serve over fettuccine. Or prepare stuffed peppers with black beans, rice and fresh herbs.
The trick is not to get bogged down with the recipe. Sometimes, if I need a little inspiration, I will page through a few cookbooks and even Google an ingredient. We are lucky to live during a time of readily available recipes. By reading several, it helps trigger creativity. I have included recipes with the hope that they serve as guides, not rules, to inspire you to discover the flavor profiles that work well together. I urge you to have at it in the kitchen. With the freshest of ingredients, you need not fear the results.
How a recipe develops
The garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. Other than tomatoes, two of the most abundant crops are kale and corn. One day I had people over for dinner and didn’t have fixings for a green salad so I decided to use my kale. But kale is tough. I remembered reading that salt and lemon tenderized the kale … and the rest is history. My Corn and Kale Salad recipe was born. Simple, delicious and healthy.
- 8 to 10 stalks of kale, stems removed and leaves cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 to 4 ears of leftover corn, kernels removed
- 1 tablespoon minced tarragon
- Pepper to taste
- Place kale in your serving bowl. Sprinkle sea salt all over kale and massage into the kale for 1 to 2 minutes. The massaging helps to tenderize the kale.
- Sprinkle with the lemon juice and set aside.
- When ready to serve, heat up butter in a skillet, add corn and sauté until warm and beginning to brown slightly. Add tarragon and then toss in with the kale.
An heirloom meal’s moment
My friend David Moore asked me to cook up a casual dinner, saying, “In the interest of this being an heirloom meal, I thought you should make corn pudding. It’s our family’s favorite heirloom food.” I said, no problem. I adapted his “non-recipe” into a workable one.
You can only imagine how surprised I was when Moore put the corn pudding on the table. I proclaimed, “Shouldn’t we wait until after the main course?” To which Moore responded, “It is part of the main course.” And I burst out laughing, admitting I thought it was dessert and I even made whipped cream to go on top. And boy was it delicious. This is a keeper and I was told it was better than his dad’s!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side
4 ears fresh corn shucked and cut off cob (or 3 to 4 cups frozen kernels, thawed)
4 farm fresh eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoon organic sugar
½ stick butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a square 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
3. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 to 5 minutes until corn is nicely blended while still retaining some texture. Pour into baking pan and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes.
4. Cool and serve warm as a side or as dessert.
Tarragon Chive Pasta Salad
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings as a side
1 pound tri-color rotini
¾ cup olive oil, divided; ¼ cup to toss with pasta, ½ cup for the dressing
1 cup scallions, sliced
¾ cup chives, minced
¼ cup tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup champagne vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and toss in a large bowl with ¼ cup of olive oil. Cool. Add scallions, chives and tarragon.
2. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in the ½ cup of olive oil in a stream until incorporated. Pour over pasta and mix.
3. Best if pasta sits at room temperature for at least 4 hours or chills overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Late Summer Roasted Heirloom Tomato Risotto
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 generous dinner servings or 6 side servings
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 cups tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 to 2½ tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I use both, 1-plus tablespoon butter, 1-plus tablespoon of olive oil)
¾ cup of a mix of shallots and onions, chopped (I used 2 shallots and 1 small onion)
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Clean and halve the cherry tomatoes.
Toss with olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spread over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Roast for 25 minutes.
2. While tomatoes are roasting, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan or risotto pot over medium flame. When butter is melted, add chopped shallots and onions. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent.
3. Add Arborio rice and stir to coat thoroughly with butter and oil; continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed.
4. Next, begin the process that makes risotto creamy. Add a ladle of hot chicken broth and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Repeat until most, if not all, of the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat, add the Parmesan cheese, fold in your tomatoes (which probably came out of the oven 5 minutes or so ago) and serve immediately.
Main photo: Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: iStockphoto / pilipphoto
I am a potato salad snob. It all dates to summers as a kid. Those lazy days when life was more casual, the rules less rigid. Our family spent the summers at our lake house. Mom and Nana seemed more relaxed and so were our meals. Dad was working during the week, so we were pretty much the women and the kids.
Our summer house was modest. I remember the kitchen with its Formica cabinets and white Formica countertops trimmed with red. I thought they were so stylish. But it was the harvest gold range with electric burners that held a particular fascination. I loved watching the coils heat up and playing with the buttons to figure out how many coils lit up when I pressed low versus the all-red of high.
More from Zester Daily:
I always saddled up to my grandmother during most of the cooking that happened on that electric range — from her zucchini fritters to her awesome potato salad. That potato salad was a giant mound of creamy comfort. The perfect side to a burger, hot dog or grilled chicken. In fact I preferred it all by itself. As my main course.
Nana would wash the potatoes with the brush reserved just for washing potatoes. I, of course, have continued this tradition and keel over with laughter when someone tries to use it to clean dishes. My reaction, with a giggle is always, “Didn’t you wash your potatoes with a specially reserved brush?” I realize that these wonderful quirky methods create the rich tapestry of our heirloom memories.
A potato salad for any variety
I couldn’t tell you whether the potatoes were red bliss, Yukon Golds, russets or other. They were just potatoes. She put them into the pot, covered them with water, brought them to a boil and then asked me to poke them to see whether they were done. I stabbed away, fishing for the ones at the bottom and trying to have them swap places with the ones on the top. Once done, we drained the water and then rinsed the potatoes in cold water in the colander. I was able to scrape the skins off with just my fingers. This is where I began to truly understand the game of hot potato.
Nana cut up most of the potatoes, leaving a few to be mashed. She used the typical ingredients — onions, celery, salt, pepper, mayo. But her two secret ingredients were sweet pickle juice and hard-boiled eggs. Come to think of it, it’s what made her tuna salad amazing as well.
Nana was always about the presentation. She sliced a red or green pepper and saved a boiled egg to slice on the top. The final step was always four or five taps of the paprika can, and the best summer side dish in the world was ready. You could eat it warm or cold or, in my case, both ways. To this day I snub most other potato salads because nothing lives up to Nana’s creamy potato salad.
Nana and Mom always made the best potato salad. Not surprisingly, there was no recipe. They just knew what to do and made it sort of the same every time. The basic ingredients were potatoes, eggs, onions, celery, parsley, mayo and the secret ingredient pickles, pickle juice or relish, depending on what was on hand. I have re-created it with this recipe. My stepson says it's like a creamy, yummy potato-egg salad. Success! Another generation experiences the love and memories that this side dish brings forward.
- 5 pounds of organic potatoes
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 5 to 6 hard-boiled egg yolks
- 1 sweet onion, chopped
- 3 to 4 celery stalks, chopped
- ¼ cup parsley,chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Paprika for garnish
- Pickle slices, pepper strips and hard-boiled egg rounds for garnish
- Place whole potatoes into a pot. Cover with water and boil for 20 to 30 minutes until soft. Drain and run cold water over them. Peel and place into a bowl.
- "Mash" them lightly so you have a combo of potato chunks and mashed potatoes. Add onions, celery and parsley.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayo, pickle juice, sugar and mustard. Pour over potato mixture until well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Mash the egg yolks and add to the potato salad until well incorporated.
- Sprinkle with paprika and garnish any way you'd like.
Main photo: Nana’s Creamy Potato Salad. Credit: Carole Murko
Honor thy food? I thought I already did that. Food had always been the centerpiece of my existence. I am half Italian. It’s what we talk about. What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What are you cooking for dinner? That was before the life-changing green juice and Rice Biriyani.
I didn’t think I needed to do anything differently. Since childhood, we always ate together as a family. Everything was cooked from scratch with the finest ingredients. We had a garden then, and now I have my own. I laughed when I learned about the Slow Food movement because I had already lived that. Food and family were so central that I created Heirloom Meals, a storytelling platform to share our connection with family recipes, heritage, stories and tips. Who ate better than my family? We had balanced meals with meats, vegetables and a starch. A simple dessert topped it off.
More from Zester Daily:
Then food-related allergies struck. My husband Jim developed celiac disease. I became a student of gluten-free cooking and adapted recipes so Jim could eat without noticing a limitation. All was well until I developed stomach issues, the kind the pharmaceutical industry has convinced us can be cured with a pop of a pill.
Intuitively, I knew a change of diet could cure my acid reflux, but adding more dietary restrictions was daunting. I tried eliminating certain foods but eventually cheese and crackers would appear in my shopping cart. I love cheese and crackers. And coffee. How could I give up my morning elixir?
Yet I hadn’t felt quite right, and I questioned why. I ate almost 100% organic foods. I had grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chickens and wild fish. We were gluten-free and had lots vegetables. Why didn’t I feel 100% great?
In early February, I was lucky to be introduced to Nancy Lee, a local herbalist, private ayurvedic, and macrobiotic chef and healer. She was exactly what I needed. I was coming off flu and did not have the energy to embrace a new diet and cooking regime alone. Lee’s program included her coming to my house and cooking one meal a day with me. So I thought, “I want to do this.” What I got was so much more than a cleanse. I learned about eating and spirituality.
Lesson No. 1
Chewing one’s food seems like a simple and basic principle of eating. I never gave it much thought. I’ve always been a speedy eater. I love my food hot. I can’t stand lukewarm food, and I have spent my life inhaling meals. Lee’s first lesson: Digestion begins in your mouth. The word “mastication” popped into my head. M-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-i-o-n. Hmmmmm … I don’t really chew my food. There is problem No. 1. I don’t even think about chewing. I just experience the flavors as quickly as possible and swallow.
Although I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful food I eat, I have never taken much time to pray over it. I hadn’t looked at the food and imagined how it will nourish and heal my body. I viewed food as the enemy for much of my life. I bought into the media’s view of the perfect woman. I sought a lithe, fit body. It never occurred to me that stopping or pausing before diving into a meal would awaken me to a food experience I had never had. I learned I had been living a warped food contradiction: I loved to make delicious food to nourish others but secretly despised that same food.
Lesson No. 2
Honor your food. Next, chew it. Check, check. The act of eating has become a spiritual experience. I’ve become present with the food. I understand that food has a life essence and energy and that certain foods cleanse and heal organs. The philosophy of honoring our food and treating our bodies with absolute reverence is vital.
My cleanse and restorative regime focused on my digestion, my heart and my hormones. We ate many and varied foods, and we drank three infusions: nettle, red clover and oat straw. Imagine drinking an infusion of red clover, nettles or oat straw every day and allowing them to pack a vitamin and nutritional punch in the most soothing way. Red clover purifies the blood and lowers bad cholesterol. It also is a great source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. Oat straw is known to reduce cholesterol, increase libido and strengthen nerves. According to herbalist Susan Weed, 1 cup of oat straw infusion contains 300 milligrams of calcium. Swigging a nettle infusion is said to strengthen bones, thicken hair, clarify skin, ease seasonal allergy symptoms and ease GERD.
Combined with a green juice in the morning and lunches of such dishes as kichari, Rice Biriyani and mulligatawny soup with sides of steamed carrots, burdock root and daikon radish, and some form of salad, the cleanse was beyond successful.
I am off coffee. People comment that I look 10 years younger. My energy is even throughout the day and I feel happy.
Sample Menu: — Steamed carrots, burdock root, daikon and squash with brown rice and a pressed cabbage salad with sesame seeds.
Have you ever reflected on who you really are? Not from a psychological perspective, but from an ethnic and ancestral one. I believe that food is among the first elements that connects us to our past and defines us.
More from Zester Daily:
Thanksgiving is a perfect time to truly ponder our connection to our ancestral foods. We are a nation of immigrants. While we embrace and give thanks as a nation, many of us also give a nod to our roots with our family Thanksgiving recipes.
I can relate to this firsthand. I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian grandparents and my parents. Food was the centerpiece of our existence. My Nana and Baba were always referring to their parents and grandparents.
The discussion often centered on food and recipes. Or, what it was like back “then,” when the family had come over “on the boat” and settled in the Bronx. They described the hardships they faced. But somehow I know they also romanticized it a bit. It seemed that “back then” always was better than “here, now.” What they were really saying was they cherished those memories. Their stories of food and meals were how they defined themselves.
Italian specialties to appreciate a new life in America
As a child, I heard stories of how the relatives all pitched in to make the Thanksgiving feast, which was really an Italian-American feast. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mantra, “Many hands make for light work.” Turkey, by the way, was an optional. All the foods came from recipes and techniques handed down through generations.
A typical menu consisted of an antipasto, a soup course, some pasta with meatballs and gravy or my favorite, manicotti, a roast of some sort with vegetables, nuts and fruit for dessert along with Italian pastries from a nearby bakery.
My mom, to this day eschews the turkey. It just isn’t her idea of Thanksgiving. For my ancestors, Thanksgiving was a time to reflect on how grateful they were to be here in the United States. However, they clung to their ancestral roots like a worn, cozy baby blanket by serving their time-tested heritage foods.
Family Thanksgiving recipes that connect to our roots
My story is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of people who bring their ethnic foods to their Thanksgiving table to honor their ancestral traditions. A family recipe brings a wonderful sense of nostalgia, love, belonging, connection and roots that cannot be denied.
Take Brazilian-born Ellie Markovitch, for instance who now lives in Troy, N.Y. She makes her Brazilian cheese bread, pão de queijo, on Thanksgiving to keep her food roots alive.
“We celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with recipes and stories from around the world,” she said. “That is because all the members in our family were born in a different country. I was born in Brazil; Dmitri in Estonia; Lina, who is 5, was born in France; and Lara, 2, was born in the U.S.”
There’s also Loring Barnes, a 10th direct descendent of William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor at the first Thanksgiving, makes her family’s acorn squash recipe and the Barnes family’s baked chocolate pudding — both recipes can be linked to her pilgrim ancestors.
So, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I beckon you to walk down food memory lane with your relatives and discover, if you haven’t already, those foods that connect you to your past. Perhaps adding an ethnic dish to the menu and the story behind it will become the bridge to your past and future. These foods will help define who you are.
Barnes Family Baked Chocolate Pudding and ‘Ice Cream’ Sauce Topping
This cake was elicited from Loring Barnes, “I am having a food memory.” This is the essence of Heirloom Meals — making and eating food that transports us to a great memory! I confess, this may be my favorite recipe and it’s a keeper. This dessert will please chocolate lovers and then some. It is the perfect combination of textures and is worth the indulgence.
For the chocolate pudding:
3 squares melted baking chocolate
½ cup sugar
1½ cups milk, divided
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature/softened
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the ‘‘Ice Cream” sauce:
1½ cups sugar
⅔ cup melted unsalted butter (warm not blazing hot so it won’t “cook” the egg)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups fresh cream, whipped
Optional: ½ shot of Gran Marnier
For the chocolate pudding:
1. Heat oven to 325 F.
2. Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan. (A Bundt with flutes is the prettiest and defines your slices).
3. In top of double boiler combine chocolate, sugar and ½ cup of the milk. Mix and stir until it thickens, remove top from heat, allow to cool.
4. In large mixing bowl or stand mixer combine butter, eggs, flour, baking soda and water mixture, salt, the remaining 1 cup of the milk, and vanilla.
5. Add the chocolate mixture to above, combine until completely mixed but don’t over beat.
6. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, bake 1 hour on the middle rack. Cool and remove from pan.
7. The pudding should be kept moist, so keep the pudding covered with foil or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not wrap so tight so that you the baked pudding sticks to your wrap. A Tupperware cake container is fine, but I still wrap it a bit within that storage.
Tip: I like wraparound soaked baking strips for even baking. This is also a way to create moisture without a water bath.
For the “Ice Cream” sauce:
In large mixing bowl or standing mixer blend ingredients together, pouring in sugar and butter so that the warm (not hot) butter will somewhat dissolve the sugar during the blending. Refrigerate until serving. Add the Gran Marnier, if you’re using it.
Serve baked pudding gently warmed in low-temperature oven. I dust with confectioners’ sugar on the plate, but this is optional. Slice, generously dollop with the hard sauce.
“Pão de Queijo” (Cheese Bread), courtesy of Ellie Markovitch
Known as the national treasure of Brazil, this cheese bread recipe is amazingly simple. Ellie adapted it from her mother’s recipe because in the U.S. we don’t have the same ingredients that are available in Brazil. It has just three ingredients. Made with yucca flour, aka tapioca flour, they are gluten-free. Ellie shared three tips with me: Once they are in the oven, you cannot peek for 30 minutes, or the rolls will collapse, so no peeking. Also, they are best eaten hot out of the oven. And last, double or triple the recipe because one batch will get eaten before it reaches the table.
1 cup of sour cream
1 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of yucca flour
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Combine the sour cream, cheese and 1 cup of yucca flour.
3. Roll the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, using about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough for each. Use the extra 2 tablespoons of yucca flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.
4. Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes Remove from oven and serve immediately piping hot.
Top photo: Pão de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko
I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.
More from Zester Daily:
My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.
Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.
The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.
A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.
Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.
Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup
The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.
Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.
They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”
While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.
So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question: Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?
Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers. I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.
Italian Chicken Soup
I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations. It’s what I call similar but different.
One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)
Enough water to amply cover the chicken
2 to 3 onions, chopped
Bunch of carrots, chopped
4 to 5 parsnips, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes. Skim off the scum.
2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.
3. Remove chicken from broth. You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.
4. At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.
If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)
Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.
Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family