Tag Archives: Italian cooking

Hanging Onto My Italian Heritage

Once a week I make pasta for my family. It’s a tradition that goes back to my childhood. Every Sunday, my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I would all gather at Nonna’s house for macaroni. I’ve been eating pasta once a week for pretty much…ever since.

Every good Italian has a handful of these wooden spoons.

I don’t have time these days for the full authentic sauce and homemade meatballs every week, but I try to mix it up. Sometimes it’s simply penne with frozen turkey meatballs, other times it’s bowtie pasta with leeks and pancetta, other (rare) times it’s the real-deal pasta carbonara.  Whether it’s ghetto bottled sauce with packaged chicken sausage or the more gourmet preparation, I always look forward to pasta nights.

Problem is, my family seems to be losing interest.

First it started when Alex decided he wasn’t really into the turkey meatballs (even though Lucas and I enjoyed them both for their taste and their simplicity). Then all of a sudden Lucas started pushing his macaroni around his plate, picking out only the meat bits. One day I packed pasta for lunch for Lucas, as I typically do when we have leftovers. Pre-school sent him home with the thermos—full. They said he wouldn’t touch it.

Lately, when I tell Alex I’m making pasta for dinner, I can hear him sigh in resignation. In a last-ditch effort to peak his interest, I went all out this week and cooked rigatoni with a bolognese sauce made from ground grass-fed angus beef and lamb. As Alex and Lucas tucked in, I looked on anxiously, hopefully…

The apathy was palpable. They just don’t care about pasta anymore.

Guys…I need to have pasta in my life. I can’t NOT have it. I finally worked up the courage to ask my husband, “Do you just not…like it?” And with great trepidation (because he knows how I feel about Italian food), he answered that he liked it, but just felt I made it too much.

Not going to lie. This hurts in my green, white, and red-striped bleeding heart. I’ve tried hard to hang onto my Italian heritage, but when you live 3,000 miles away from your Italian relatives, and the best slice of pizza in your community comes from a Round Table chain, well, it’s easy to find it slipping away.

Italian pantryThere are little things in my kitchen that are definitively Italian. I’ve only got the best olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. I have a pepper mill. My pantry is full of peperoncinis and olives. I have a wine rack that needs weekly refilling. But if you open up my fridge, you’d hardly know an Italian gal is in charge of its contents. Tortillas, lentils, beans, albondigas (all thanks to my mother-in-law sending home tons of leftovers). Maybe sometimes there’s a handful of fresh parsley and basil. More often it’s cilantro.

My boys have Mexican taste buds. And my poor Italian tummy, while appreciative of the deliciousness of Mexican cuisine, just craves those macaroni Sundays the way a crack addict craves the rock.

How do I reconcile this? How do I keep my little family happy at dinnertime without sacrificing my weekly pasta? Do I change up the recipes? Do I (gulp) just make it every other week? Or do I tell them to suck it up and eat the damn pasta?

You know what my Italian heritage tells me to do? It tells me to Mangia! Mangia! and just fuggetaboutit.

My Mom Blessed Me With Her Cooking Gene for Just One Dish

When I was a little girl, I was an extremely picky eater. My poor Italian mom had to make bland baked chicken and rice pilaf for dinner practically every night. (Except Sundays. Sunday was always macaroni day—no ifs, ands, or buts.) By the time I headed off to college in New York, I was so sick of chicken and rice—and thus, mom’s cooking—that I actually enjoyed the prison-like freshman meal plan food for the first month or so. Then I came home for Thanksgiving and was transformed.

Oh my God. My mom is an amazing cook.

Once I threw aside my finicky food behaviors in favor of a more mature eat all the things approach, I realized that my mom is an actual goddess in the kitchen. Everything she touches is gold. I know a lot of people say their mom is the best cook, but keep in mind: fuck you. (Hat tip to Rob Delaney.) Still, of all the delicious things she has conjured up, one dish stands out for its genius in simplicity. Behold: the crab artichoke dip.

crab artichoke dip

When my mom first whipped together this party favorite, clouds parted and angels sang their praises. A single beam of light came down from the heavens and God himself was like, “Hey, can you share this recipe with Mary?” My mom obliged because she’s got 50 million other knock-em-dead dishes, and she figured Mary could use a few tips.

Admittedly, I am not the cook my mother is. I didn’t really start trying until I was 27 years old and had moved out of New York, where I used my oven to store the purses that wouldn’t fit in my closet. Now that I’m working full-time and commuting and bringing up a child, I find myself throwing together the bland baked chicken and rice pilaf because 1. it’s really simple and I can walk away from the stove to get other stuff done and 2. my kid will actually eat it. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this is the definition of irony.

Despite my shortcomings in the kitchen, I can make a mean crab dip. If you invite me to your house for a party, I’m bringing it. (Though I’m not sharing this recipe with you folks because this is the only thing I bring to the table. I will only let leak this one fact: there are but six ingredients. Six ingredients, and without fail, my party platter always comes home clean.)

Next time you have a party, invite me over and request the crab dip. For one, you’ll thank me, you really will. But for another, it will make me feel like, even for just a brief moment, I might actually have a shot at being the amazing cook my mom is. If she suffered through 18 years of bland chicken and rice and could produce something like THIS, then there’s hope for me yet.

Confession: I Put Hot Dogs in the Pasta I Served with Bottled Sauce for Dinner

My Nonna is rolling in her grave right now.

bowl of pasta
This pasta used to have hot dogs in it. I ate them all out of shame.

I can make a decent authentic Italian sauce. (Note: If someone tells you pasta sauce is called gravy, just kick them in the crotch and walk away.) My mom taught me Nonna’s recipe, painstakingly walking me through each step, each adjustment for consistency and flavor. For a while (pre-child), I would spend my Sundays standing over a large pot of simmering saucy goodness that I would then serve to a table of Mexicans who proceeded to defecate on the meal by pouring Tapatio all over it.

One day, after I spent a couple hours rolling meatballs and stirring the sauce with a well-seasoned wooden spoon, my husband made a stunning confession.

Alex: I actually like Prego sauce better than your Nonna’s sauce.

Me: ………

Alex: What? I just do! It’s better. It’s got more…I don’t know…flavor?

Me: ………….

Alex: Why are you looking at me like that?

Me (strongly considering divorce): I…just…can’t talk to you right now.

Prego sauce
Not cool, Alex. Not cool.

Being told that Prego is preferred over the real-deal sauce, the sauce that I love, the sauce that I planned to pass down to my kids, was pretty much a kick in the crotch. (I’m stuck on this crotch metaphor today, just roll with it.) I vowed to keep making it anyway, but the wind had been knocked out of my sails, and after Lucas was born, I just couldn’t justify spending a couple hours on a meal that I knew my husband wasn’t really enjoying. I still bust it out for company (who all, by the way, seem to LOVE IT), but it’s not the same. So I downshifted and found this bottled sauce I could live with: Gina Rispoli, which is made in Hoboken, New Jersey, which we all know is Italy, Jr.

So fine, I cooked pasta with bottled sauce, but at least I still made the meatballs! For a while…But all of a sudden, I started needing weekday meals that could be turned around in a matter of 20 minutes (full-time job with long commute equals very hungry toddler by the time we get home), and homemade meatballs took too much time. And plain pasta with plain sauce was a little…plain. We like our meat in the Zamora household.

So fine, some Italian sausage can be cooked up quickly! Except…it’s not very healthy. So fine! Some Italian chicken sausage…in a package…can be cooked up quickly! And that’s been the deal for a while until this week when I had a bunch of hot dogs leftover from a cookout and…

Guys, I put the hot dogs in the bottled sauce and served it as a meal. I’m ashamed to call myself Italian right now. I’m sorry, Nonna. I’m really sorry.

I think I need to appease the Italian gods (in the name of the godfather, the pushy mother, and the holy garlic) and cook up an authentic Italian storm this weekend. Even if I’ve got five loads of laundry and a restless child running circles around my legs, I don’t care. The meatballs will be made, dammit! The sauce will be stirred! And may Nonna have mercy on my soul!