My dad is 100% Calabrese (Calabria is seen above--it's the tip of the boot). His grandmother grew up on Mulberry Street, in NYC's Little Italy, at the turn of the 20th century. Thus, when my grandparents got married, food was an important part of their household.
One of the things I regret about my life is that I never got to know my Italian grandmother as an adult. She died when I was 20, and she had dementia for the last few years of her life, so I really only got to talk to her to my early teenage years. She scared me a bit a a child, because she was very particular about things. If I got an A on a math test, she'd ask me why I didn't get an A all the time. She didn't have much of a filter when it came to talking to her family. But as I've grown up, I've realized how much we are actually alike. We both love food and cooking, and entertaining people. She received a college scholarship to study voice, but she couldn't take it. She did beautiful embroidery work. I would've loved for her to teach me how to cook. In a way, I guess, she did.
Grandma D. certainly instilled a love of food and cooking in me. When I was a small child, we spent the Christmas holiday in Pittsburgh, and Christmas Eve was spent with my Dad's family. Grandma D's house was a great place for kids, because the basement was essentially another house. There was a kitchen down there, a TV, a bathroom, the parlor organ, a player piano, and furniture. A huge storage room held the tins full of Christmas cookies, wrapped in wax paper, that Grandma made all year. In the basement kitchen, my aunts would be peeling, chopping, slicing, and baking, their voices echoing off the concrete floor, which was covered in some sort of rough, fuzzy "carpet" material. The women always looked so happy, surrounded by cutting boards and knives, laughter ringing through the room. I wished I was old enough to help. I missed the Feast of the Seven Fishes, because I was too young. I ate at the kids' table, and we ate pasta. It was good, but it wasn't the magical meal of seafood that I would've loved (even the crazy parts). Her Christmas cookie plates and special desserts are still mentioned with longing by my dad. Mom got a pizelle maker a few years ago, and she'll make them at Christmas. They're a lovely throwback to Christmas at Grandma D's.
When I was about eight or nine, Dad taught me how to cook pasta correctly. Our family al dente is a bit past "regular" al dente. In the Betty Crocker cookbook my mom had received as a wedding gift, Dad had scribbled a gnocchi recipe. He could make it from scratch, and his mom or grandma had probably taught him. We preferred red sauce to just about anything else; being Southern Italian, we didn't use the creamy white sauces of the north. The south is a poorer region not blessed with the dairy goodness of some other parts of Italy. Dad is a red sauce man all the way. I am too, actually. (Well, red sauce woman.) Not only is it easier to make, but it's so versatile. (You'll see what I mean in a second.)
It's a cliche that food is love, but in this case--it really was. Grandma's affection for us might not have been in typical grandmotherly hugs and kisses and heaped up praise. It was hard, as a kid, to believe she really liked us. :) But now I think I would've understood her a lot better, and I hope we would've cooked together in the upstairs kitchen, overlooking the hills of her property that stretched farther than we could see.
Basic Red Sauce
yield: 4 cups
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 large basil leaves, or a palmful of dried basil. (If fresh, chopped)
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, and 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes--both with their juices
Coarse salt (I use kosher salt)
freshly ground black pepper
Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan or Dutch over over low heat. Add garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add half the basil and stir for one minute. Add tomatoes, their juice, and the rest of the basil. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and let cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and crushing tomatoes with the back of the wooden spoon. Cool and refrigerate. Use within 3-5 days.
This basic sauce can be turned into a puttanesca sauce with the addition of red pepper flakes and anchovies. It's great for any shape pasta and reheats beautifully. You can use this for lasagne, too.