Memories of Mom in the kitchen can bring a twinkle to the eyes of anyone. But when you get a group of chefs and cooks together (particularly those over the age of 40), sooner or later the conversation steers toward reminiscing about their favorite childhood foods that Mom used to make. A lot of us can remember that Mom didn’t always use measurements, but the food was still remarkably consistent.
My Mom and Bella, my daughter, with me at the old South Union Bakery in Des Moines around 2006 or so.
Back in the day, my mom stayed at home and took care of the house and the four of us kids, which was hard work. Almost all meals were cooked at home. We seldom went out to eat, and when we did it was for a special occasion.
The Sunday meal was my favorite, by far. Mom would start preparing early in the morning and would typically prepare a huge meal of pasta and meatballs. If I was lucky, mom would make rigatoni (my favorite choice for cut of pasta). The Sunday “sugo” started out with olive oil and finely minced garlic and onions, cooked until they were done but not yet brown. Then tiny riblets (the cut end of a rack of ribs still held together) were added and cooked. Occasionally, pieces of chuck roast, sausage, chicken or tiny meat rolls called “braciole” found their way into the sauce. She would season everything with a small amount of dry basil, a bay leaf and black pepper. Next, she would add a few cans of tomato sauce, tomato paste and water to make a thin sauce.
As the sauce began to simmer, mom would mix the meatballs. These consisted of ground beef, freshly grated bread crumbs, Parmesan, fresh parsley, fresh basil and eggs. She mixed everything just enough to bind it all. The meatballs would be fried in a small amount of oil. Then Mom had a trick – she would hard fry the meatballs dark brown, cooking them only about half way in the center. When meatballs are only partially cooked they get penetrated and braised by the simmering sauce. She also filtered the frying oil between paper towels to re-use it – and as you know, this results in some great flavored oil!
Mom’s sauce would simmer for several hours until all the meats were “fork-tender.” The meats would all be removed and placed in a large bowl to be served on the side, as is done in Italy. Mom would boil the pasta and add a small amount of oil followed by a bit of sauce. The last step was dishing up giant bowls of pasta for each of us, topping each portion with additional sauce. If you ever came to my house for dinner you might be amazed at the size of the portions; but with the care and attention that went into Mom’s Sunday “sugo,” you would not be surprised by the extended generosity.
To me, she was “Mom,” but her friends knew her as “Gina,” (short for Giaocchina.) Here we are again inside the old South Union Bakery.
Here are some other favorites of mine:
Sicilian Eggplant Relish
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 large sweet onion, peeled and chopped
- 4 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 cup large green olives, pitted and chopped
- 1 jar capers (3 ounces), drained
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 large firm eggplant, diced
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 6 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- 3 tablespoon water
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
First, place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with salt and let drain for at least 30 minutes. Prep the other items while eggplant drains.
Pre-heat a deep pot over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When heated, add peppers, onion, and celery to the pot. Once vegetables are all in, increase the heat a bit but do not brown. When veggies are done remove from pan.
Place pan back on heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pot. When heated, add the eggplant and brown.
When the eggplant is done, leave in pan and add back vegetables. Toss in olives, capers and garlic. Stir in tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and water. Add toasted pine nuts and cook on low heat covered for 25 to 30 minutes.
This is a great recipe for late summer and fall when zucchini is fresh and plentiful. The yield will be about 10 2-1/2 inch fritters.
- 1 pound (about 2 medium) zucchini
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus extra to taste
- 2 scallions, chopped (greens and white)
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 4 leaves fresh basil, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- Olive oil (or another oil of your choice) for frying
To serve (optional)
- 1 cup sour cream
- Pinch of salt
- 1 small minced or crushed clove of garlic
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.
Trim ends off zucchini and grate them on the large holes of a box grater. In a large bowl, toss zucchini with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Wrap the zucchini in a clean dish towel and wring out the moisture. You can also place in a colander and press all the liquid out.
Add zucchini to a stainless steel mixing bowl. Stir in scallions, egg and some freshly ground black pepper. Mix together flour and baking powder, then stir the mixture into the zucchini batter.
Add Parmesan cheese, chopped garlic, dried and fresh basil. Mix thoroughly.
In a large heavy skillet (mom used a cast iron pan that looked like it was 100 years old) heat 2 to 4 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Drop large spoonfuls of the zucchini mixture onto the skillet only a few at a time. Flatten with the back of a spoon. Cook the fritters over moderately high heat until the edges underneath are golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over and fry them on the other side until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Drain briefly on paper towels then transfer to baking sheet and then pop into the warm oven until needed. Repeat process, adding more oil as necessary.
This is a recipe for fried rice balls. The dish is believed to have originated in Sicily in the 1100’s.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup minced onion
- 2 pound bag arborio rice
- 8 cups of vegetable stock or chicken stock (kept warm)
- 1 package saffron powder
- 3 cups grated cheese: You can use provolone, mozzarella, Swiss, young Asiago or a blend.
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh garlic
- 1 / 2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 2 cups flour
- 6 eggs
- 4 cups Italian bread crumbs (or fresh made)
Heat a large sauté pan. Add the olive oil, followed by minced onion. Sauté the onions, careful not to brown.
Add rice and cook for I minute. Add white pepper and saffron powder and turn heat to low.
Add heated stock 1 cup at a time, letting it get absorbed by the rice before adding the next cup.
Repeat until rice is al dente. You may need more or less stock, depending on your cooking preference.
Remove the rice from the heat and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool for about an hour
You can do this a day ahead if you like.
Add Parmesan cheese and grated cheese, fresh garlic and parsley.
Once cool, roll the rice into little balls and bread using standard breading procedure: roll into flour, then roll into egg followed by an even coating of bread crumbs.
Fry at 350 until golden brown and cheese is melted.
To serve, spoon on marinara sauce or meat ragu with peas on each rice ball as you serve them at them. Yum!
(Variation: You can add a cup of a combination of the following: diced pepperoni, salami and coppacolo when you add the cheese.)
A RECIPE FROM ANOTHER MOM
Speaking of Mom recipes… Rene Onofre, a cook at Django, shared a family favorite with me recently. Back in Puebla, which is in southern Mexico, his mom, Sandra Camocho made the best beans. Known as “borracho beans,” these legumes are different from the refried beans familiar to most North Americans. Note that a bottle of dark beer is used, which is probably how “borracho” (or “drunk”) beans got their name!
- 4 quarts water
- 2 pounds of pinto beans
- ¼ cup of lard
- 2 medium-sized yellow onions
- 1/2 lb chorizo
- 1 lb fresh authentic chicharron
- 1 lb smoked bacon, diced
- A couple sprigs epazote (dried or fresh)
- 1 bottle dark beer
- 1 cup of diced tomatoes
- Cilantro (to garnish)
- 1 pound of carnitas (to garnish)
Soak beans in water overnight.
Place water with salt in a sauce pan; add pinto beans. Let it cook until the beans cook almost tender.
In a separate pan, heat 1/4 cup lard, sauté onions lightly then add the chorizo, chicharron, and smoked bacon. Cook until done, then add to pot of almost-tender beans with the beer and epazote.
Let simmer about two hours in a low flame. Don’t forget to stir. Taste.
When beans are tender, add diced tomatoes. Stir slowly and simmer for about 20 minutes longer.
Serve in a bowl and garnished with about 3 to 4 ounces of shredded carnitas and finely chopped fresh cilantro. If you want, you can add some spicy kick with some fresh jalapeños or chipotles in adobo sauce.
So there you go; plenty of dishes straight from Mom. You can bet she never pulled out a recipe card to make these at home; but for the rest of us, these steps will get us a little closer to recreating those Sunday favorites from our childhood!