Italian Cooking Survival Skills

I served up rotini with a pasta puttanesca sauce with olives and a side of Swiss chard topped with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. –

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

Recently I pondered the longevity of Italian cooking. While I enjoy cooking Italian food, I tend to eat other kinds of cuisine when dining out. For example, I relish Indian food. However, instead of keeping staple ingredients on hand for Indian food, I prefer not to, and opt to eat Indian out. Yet when it comes to Italian foodstuffs, I am a connoisseur due my lifelong cradle to present love affair with it.

On the subject of Italian dishes, I wax poetic: as long as a cook has a bottle of high quality olive oil, fine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, good quality pasta (I keep rigatoni, linguine, fettucine, cappellini, and rotini on hand), excellent butter such as Kerry’s Gold, and fresh parsley on hand, delicious pasta can be concocted. Additional items to have ready are Sicilian green olives (my personal favorite), Calamata olives, anchovies, sardines (both in olive oil), and panko and/or Italian bread crumbs, capers, eggs, a large tin of tomatoes, a bottle of strained tomatoes, a bottle of robust red wine such as Chianti or Pinot Noir, a bottle of dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio, white truffle butter (when in season), pesto (during the winter months I purchase Costco’s Kirkland’s Basil Pesto), pancetta or bacon, and heavy cream.

With said ingredients on hand, I can whip up the following in a flash: spaghetti carbonara, pasta puttanesca, linguine with pesto, Greek pasta with olive oil, butter, and parsley, fettucine with white truffle butter and crimini mushrooms a’ la The Barefoot Contessa, spaghetti with anchovies, garlic and breadcrumbs courtesy of Melissa Clark of The New York Times Cooking, and spaghetti with sardines, capers and breadcrumbs thanks to Mark Bittman of the The New York Times Cooking. All of these delectable entrees may be made effortlessly with my pantry and refrigerator items that I generally keep on hand. All this, without my even delving into Italian soups!

Here is a link to Melissa Clark’s recipe for Spaghetti with Garlicky Breadcrumbs and Anchovies recipe. I make it frequently.

Buon appetito!

Ciao for now.

Good Neighbor Jim

The sort of meal Jim liked, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island
The sort of lamb meal Jim liked, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

I met Jim and Angie 23 years ago when I moved into our 1928 bungalow the week before Christmas, newly separated from my husband and two months pregnant.  My father had introduced me to Jim and Angie.  Within a short time, I loved them too.

Jim’s father Vic had started the family plumbing and heating business, and now Jim and three of his five sons ran the business.  They were master heating and plumbing specialists.  They had installed the gas-water heating system in our house.  More years down the road they installed a new compatible gas-water heating air conditioning system.  Getting rid of window air conditioning units proved a welcome relief. Throughout the years, Jim checked on our a/c, our boiler, and offered helpful advice on home maintenance.

Of German extraction, Jim had a dry, wry sense of humor that always brought a smile to my face.  He reflected a “calls ‘em as I sees ‘em” sort of attitude.  Throughout the seasons, Jim could be found hovering over his large gas grill.  He and his family remain the largest group of carnivores I know, and I say this most affectionately.  Nearly every Saturday night his five in-town children and their families would pull up in front of our houses for a family dinner.  This generally consisted of Jim’s grilled chicken, or pork, or sausage, or ribs, corn, Angie’s pasta and meatballs, a daughter-in-law’s salad, another’s homemade pies, and the sons’ drinks.  Invariably, Jim would hand us a plate of grilled meat and corn over the fence. His own recipe for barbecue was finger licking good, and I am not even a barbecue connoisseur.  We became excellent friends with his son Terry and his family.  My daughter and Terry’s daughter have been close pals almost since birth.  We have also shared many a birthday cake with Jim and Angie’s family.

What impressed me most these past years was Jim’s sense of family, which reminded me of my own.  He and Angie became like grandparents to my daughter.  Our families became intertwined throughout the years, and I reveled in having such tremendous neighbors of kindness, joy, and integrity.

In the past years, Jim had become increasingly hard of hearing, though I’m sure he wouldn’t admit it.  He persisted in climbing up a tall ladder to work on his second-story windows.  In fact, last week he had climbed up that ladder to paint cedar shingles white.  Some may have viewed him as irascible at age 82, but my perception was that he’s “got a lot of livin’ to do!”  He was always a man in a hurry, an active citizen, a tireless Catholic Church champion, and an inveterate golfer.

Last Sunday afternoon sirens shattered the Sunday serenity.  EMS and a firefighter truck pulled up.  Men hurriedly entered Jim and Angie’s house with a stretcher.

Jim died Wednesday night from a massive stroke.

We took the baked rigatoni, Chianti, and chocolate chip cookies we made to Angie this afternoon.

Jim’s champagne-colored sedan is still parked in front of the house, but it still feels like the world tilted

Ciao for now.

Buona Pasqua, Ancora

Cugina Chrissy's limoncello and chocolate raspberry-chocolate chip cakes -
Cugina Chrissy’s limoncello and chocolate raspberry-chocolate chip cakes –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Easter Sunday dawned auspiciously today:  The sky was gray and overcast.  As I was leaving for Church, rain began to puddle on the patio.  Since I had scheduled the 9:30 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday in memory of my parents, Catherine “Kitty” and Frank, I realized I neglected to negotiate with the meteorologist for sunshine.  Yet halfway through Easter Mass, the sun shone, filtering through the Church’s stained glass windows.  It was a glorious omen for Easter.

My cugina [cousin] Marianne [yes, we Italians like to continuously recycle family names, which is why three-fourths of Italian women have the same first names, as do the men], invited me over for an Easter breakfast with her family.  Her father, my uncle and Godfather, is ninety-four years young, and, as our family patriarch, happily presided over my cousin’s light-as-air Belgian waffles [we Italians in the Heartland are multicultural in culinary spirit as well as ecumenical], crispy center-cut bacon, and her daughter’s delicious once-over-easy eggs.   Her husband Steve poured us shots of Amaretto di Saranno, which I poured into my coffee, thereby punching up my cup of Joe.

I was touched by my cugina’s Easter Breakfast invitation because sitting down with family reminded me of Easter Sunday breakfasts after Mass with my family.  When I was away at college, unable to get home for Easter, my mother made a point of sending me an Easter basket filled with malted milk balls, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, a large chocolate bunny, jelly beans and decorated eggs.  This year, I too filled my daughter’s furry, musical, ear-flapping rabbit Easter basket with treats and mailed it to her.   It is a worthy family tradition; it even received the Easter Bunny Seal of Approval.

My uncle’s family convened again late this afternoon for Easter dinner at his granddaughter Chrissy’s home.  My cousin follows in the family tradition of fine cooks.  She whipped up enough food to feed the Italian army:  Baked ham, potatoes, corn, green beans, and her mother prepared Italian sausage in a tomato-onion sauce for sandwiches replete with crusty Italian bread.  To top it off, dessert was limoncello cake and a chocolate-raspberry-chocolate chip cake confection.  Naturally, we imbibed vino bianco and vino rosso.  My contribution was an Italian Easter bread in the shape of a crucifix, and a bottle of hearty Chianti.

Tomorrow I am fasting. Alleluia!

Ciao for now.