We hold Italian cooking classes on the farm. I learned to make bread dough, pasta dough, lasagna, meat ravioli, Italian sausage, salads, cookies, pizza, calzones, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese and others from my mom and her mom.
Two of the three most influential women in my life were my mom and my mom-mom. I learned allot from both of them and I won't bore you with the details of the religious, moral, ethical, social and community mores they instilled. Instead it’s my other passion besides growing, food. Not just food but home made from scratch, stick to your ribs, comfort food. Technically what would be classified as peasant food.
As a child no meal prepared in the maternal kitchens ever smelled as good as when they were preparing Italian dishes. Starting with the smell of sautéed onion and garlic in olive oil. Then pile on tomatoes, Romano cheese, oregano some salt and pepper. The fragrance was mouth watering. Add to the olfactory the forbiddingness, as children we were never allowed in the kitchen. Mom-mom years before had here dress catch fire in the kitchen and she was burned pretty badly. We didn't realize as kids but she bore the burden of both the physical and emotional from that accident. Being a child we only new that we were not allowed in the kitchen when mom-mom was cooking. I think my mom kept the practice because she was allowed some peace. Human nature took over and I wanted what I couldn't have. There was a great attraction to the kitchen for me.
It wasn't until I was sixteen before I was allowed in the kitchen without being asked what I was doing; sometimes in unison. In the beginning of my tutelage I focused on the Italian dishes that mom and mom-mom made. Meatballs and spaghetti sauce were first, then I learned how to make pasta dough. All preparations were done by hand. Those six words in the last sentence barely describe the manual labor and effort that goes into making pasta dough by hand. The process and ingredients are simple, eggs, flour water, mix until incorporated. Today I use semolina flour and a Cuisinart but I was taught to use all purpose flour and my hands.
My grandmother was about five feet tall and one hundred ten pounds when drenched. At the age of sixteen, she put a hurting on me, and I was starting to hit my peak physical shape. I was running, lifting, playing baseball in the summer, pick-up football, and basketball games and soccer in the winter. But to mix those simple ingredients made me sweat and my arms and hands ache. All those times I watched them make pasta then ravioli it seemed simple. They both looked like they worked effortlessly. Well I can tell you it was not, even with the tools we have today it is still labor intensive to make ravioli. Its one of longest classes we teach and one that leaves the students tired but sated.
The recipes that I have from both women are still with me. When I first started cooking on my own I didn't really change the ingredients as much as make them upscale. I mean why buy the cheapest meat when a better cut was available, or use cheap olive oil. Both my mom and mom-mom would have to buy the cheapest meat, cheese and olive oil because they could not afford anything more expensive. In my quest to make dishes taste like theirs I had to learn that sometimes cost does matter. We were so use to eating the ingredients that when I went to high-end x-virgin olive oil or choice ground beef the taste was not the same.
One of the greatest compliments I received was when my niece said my ravioli tasted like mom-mom's. Still to this day I am humbled when family tells me how close my pizza is to mom and mom-moms or how good my meatballs taste. I think it is a way to pay tribute and homage to the women that shaped me and nurtured my interests in cooking. My mom's side of the family has been making Italian sausage for over 75 years, with me being part of it for the last twenty five. We make it once a year the week before Christmas. Christmas morning home made bread rolls are made, the sausage is cooked and we have eggs for breakfast. A couple of years ago we added our own organic eggs to the mix. To sit down to a meal and everything you eat you've had a hand in making is special. Add to that feeling the significance of day and we get a profound sense of well being.
The Italian cooking lessons I had with my mom and her mom will forever be etched in my mind and cherished for what they truly were. A passing of the torch if you will, they are both gone but as I said they live on each time I add water to flour, or cheese to meat or stuff casing with seasoned pork. Fresh vegetables, meats, fish, fruits, eggs and berries are as fundamental to our being as breathing and in some cases so to is learning from Italian cooking classes.