Author Archives: Skip

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce

Here is my grandmother’s basic tomato sauce. This is the one she always seemed to have on hand “just to color” slices of sautéed zucchini, mix into a pot of beans, or spoon over pasta.

During the summer, she and my grandfather would put up gallons of tomatoes, but when her larder ran out, she wasn’t at all averse to using commercially canned tomatoes. However, with those, she claimed that adding a grated carrot sweetened the sauce and took away the metalic, “canned” taste.

We recently got some affirmation of my grandmother’s practice from a surprising source, the former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. In his book, Politics and Pasta, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci talked about his own marinara sauce, devoloped to raise money for local scholarships.

“I created the Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce in the early 1990’s as something to sell at a fund-raiser. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. I made it with the owners of the West Valley Inn. We put in a little of this, some of that, added a pinch of whatever; we just kept experimenting. I wanted it to taste just like the sauce my aunts would make on Sunday afternoons so many years earlier. Their sauce would simmer on the stove for hours as they occasionally added their own ingredients until it was slightly better than perfect. But whatever I added, we couldn’t get it exactly right—until the Old Canteen’s Joe Marzilli suggested we had to add carrots to take away the acidity. Once we did that, hmmmmm, it was perfect.”

My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce

Ingredients:

Olive oil
4 Cloves garlic, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 28 Oz. Cans peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 Small carrot, grated
1/2 tsp. Peperoncino (hot red pepper flakes)
4 Tbs. Fresh basil leaves, torn
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/4 Cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic. With a wooden spoon, stir for about one minute, until the garlic begins to give up its aroma.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the tomatoes and their liquid. Return the pan to the heat and begin to break up the tomatoes with either the back of a fork or the wooden spoon. Simmer the tomatoes to evaporate some of their liquid, then add the carrot, the red pepper flakes, basil, and oregano, .

Simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the clear liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Add the parsley and the remaining 2 Tbs. of basil. Cool a spoonful of the sauce and taste for salt and pepper.

Makes approximately 6 Cups (1 1/2 Quarts).

Giugiulena

In the days leading up to La Cena della Vigilia, the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, Italian-American families gather to produce a dizzying array of sweets. Among them are giugiulena (joo-joo-LEH-nah), sesame-almond candies that stand as testament to Sicily’s history as a cultural junction.

Giugiulena
Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

The island’s benign climate and central Mediterranean location attracted myriad Europeans, among them Crusaders reluctant to return to the drafty mead halls of northern Europe. In the East, European adventurers had tasted more than sesame; their campaigns in the Holy Land had brought them into contact with sophisticated Arab urban cultures. Meanwhile, Arabs had settled across North Africa and in nearby Sicily, where they introduced new crops and cultivation techniques. The Muslims of the late medieval period enjoyed peaceful participation in a polyglot society that included Jews and Christian Italians, Greeks, Normans, English, Germans, and Catalans.

Giugiulena: the Sicilian name intrigued us, and we suspected an Arabic origin even though the contemporary Arabic simsim and Italian sesamo are clear cousins. We found a clue, but no obvious answer, in the modern Spanish, ajonjoli… So we emailed our friend, fellow food-historian and linguist, Charles Perry, a longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Charles replied that both ajonjoli and giugiulena are from a less common medieval Arabic name for sesame—juljulaan. He wrote, “I’ve often wondered whether juljulaan is connected somehow with juljul, which means a small bell—a jingle bell? … al-jonjoliin was the current word in Moorish Spain. Hence, the Spanish word for sesame, ajonjoli.”

(As an aside here, we should say that Charles is one of the few people we know who can truthfully say he’s often wondered about the origin of an archaic word for sesame…)

Sesame Flower
Photo courtesy of Nagraj Salian

But—Charles had given us the final clue… We are gardeners, and one of us has studied plant taxonomy. So, if you happen to know what a sesame blossom looks like and if you’ve ever heard how a dry sesame seed-capsule rattles, then it’s obvious that medieval Arabs had a popular name for Sesamum indicum that vividly described two of its most distiguishing characteristics. Juljul…small bell… This photo, of one strain of sesame in the plant’s native India, says it all.

With such a multicultural pedigree, giugiulena strikes us an appropriate sweet to mark a holiday period when everyone should celebrate the prospect of peace, now and in the year ahead.

Giugiulena

Italian confectionary has traditionally been the province of women—whether they be the nuns in Italian convents, who still fashion many of the nut-based sweets from the Arab period or the Italian-American nonnas, mamas, aunts, and children gathering to make hundreds of canali, biscotti, crescenti, amaretti, and struffoli along with these jawbreakers.*

* Variations of giugiulena are widespread throughout the Mediterranean. This recipe could be described as authentically Italian, as opposed to Italian-American. However, in much of the Mediterranean, the bitter almond extract included below would be superfluous. Almond trees in the Mediterranean produce a higher percentage of bitter almonds (the taste Americans would associate with amaretto liqueur), and thus, the Americanized version counts on an extract to impart that top-note. In addition, instead of vanilla and/or the brandy, an Italian might add a few drops of grappa.

Giugiulena
Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

Although we’ve expanded the cooking instructions, this recipe is faithful to the well-used index card in the photo. It comes from Angela Munno by way of Jo-Ann Carta, both of Middletown, Connecticut.

Ingredients:

1/2 Lb. Whole shelled almonds
1 Lb. Sesame seeds
1 1/4 Cup Honey (10 oz.)
1 Cup Sugar
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Vanilla extract
1 tsp Almond extract
Grated rind of 1 Tangerine
1 — 2 oz. Brandy—optional

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 300 F. (We use a toaster oven. If you do, stay close by to watch the almonds so they do not burn.)

Spread the almonds out on a sheet pan and place in the middle shelf of the oven. Toast for approximately 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the sesame seeds. In a dry pan, toast the seeds, stirring occasionally, for approximately 15 minutes, until they begin to give off a toasted aroma. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Place a 3 or 4 quart saucepan over medium-high heat and add the honey. Heat the honey until it has become liquid. Stir in the sugar to dissolve and, when the mixture begins to boil, lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, for 7 — 8 minutes—no longer. The mixture will be golden-brown in color.

Add all the sesame seeds and almonds, stirring constantly for a few minutes to incorporate them with the honey-sugar mixture. Cook for about 7 minutes, stirring regularly. The mixture will become stiff, but keep it moving in the pot. Add cinnamon and grated tangerine skin and cook for an additional 2 — 3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and almond extracts and (optional) brandy. Continue to stir for approximately five minutes as the mixture cools. It will be quite stiff.

Giugiulena
Photograph © 2008, Skip Lombardi

Pour and spread onto a wet cutting board and roll flat to a uniform half-inch thickness with a wet rolling pin.

With a sharp, wet knife, cut the candy on the diagonal to make diamond shapes or lozenges*.

* As one more demonstration of how food brings us all together: the word lozenge comes from the Arabic lawz, almond.

Bailout, Italian-Style

Wheels of Parmigiano

Writing about the evolution of Italian food in America, it strikes us that there is one truly Italian ingredient whose iconic status has survived an onslaught of imitations. Parmigiano has remained constant and integral to Italian-American cuisine. And now, the artisanal producers of what Mario Battali has dubbed [sic] “the indisputed king of cheeses” are in trouble.

Bravo to the Italian government for their plan to subsidize Parmigiano-makers. We also promise to do our part…this is our kind of bailout.

Wall Street Journal Article

Story on NPR

My Grandmother Carmelina’s Lasagne

Lasagne

A big dish of lasagne* always marked major holidays at the LaBella house; we could count on it at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. When I got older, I would prevail upon my maternal grandmother, Carmelina, to make lasagne for my birthday in June—shortening the wait between Easter and Thanksgiving. Noonie, as I called her, always obliged.

Labor-intensive as lasagne is to prepare, it was never the main course on any of our holiday menus. It was, after all, just a “dish of pasta with red sauce,” and thus—in the opinion of the average Italian-American grandmother—appropriate as a first course before the Braccioletone, the ham, or the turkey. Nonetheless, we did acknowledge it as the pièce de résistance; whenever Noonie brought forth the lasagne, the conversation became more animated, the mood brighter, the meal more festive.

The lasagne course invariably included green salad, bread, and perhaps a dish of hot peppers. Indeed, I’ve often wondered why Noonie and Pop (my grandfather) ever bothered with the ham or turkey. I can only guess that it was their way of paying homage to America, the place where Italians and other poor immigrants could afford food in such abundance. Paradoxically, it was at tables like ours (in Middletown, Connecticut) where gastronomy inspired by the Old Country could be celebrated in a way that had never been possible in the Sicilian and Calabrian villages my great-grandparents and their neighbors had been forced to leave behind.

* Lasagne is the correct spelling of this classic casserole and the plural of lasagna—a wide, flat noodle.

Note: Generations of Italians here and back in Italy have boiled their pasta sheets before assembling a pan of lasagne. Several years ago, various American pasta companies began to market “no-boil lasagne,” slightly thinner sheets of dough to be added as uncooked layers. It’s not at all hard to fathom why this seemingly radical departure from tradition works: If the baking pan is covered with foil, the dry pasta simply absorbs the liquid from the tomato sauce and cheeses. You get a firmer, less runny casserole, with pasta that, according to your attentiveness, can still be a little al dente. We (and lots of other cooks who chat online) have wondered if the same technique would work with ordinary pasta. It does. See our instructions below.

Ingredients (see end notes):

Olive oil
2 Cloves of garlic, peeled, and finely sliced
1 Medium yellow onion, peeled, and diced
1 Lb. Sweet or hot Italian sausage, removed from its casings
1 ½ Lb. Ground beef (20% fat)
1 6 oz. Can tomato paste
12 oz. Dry red wine
2 28 oz. Cans Italian plum tomatoes, crushed (preferably San Marzano)
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, chopped or 1 Tbs. dried oregano if you cannot find it fresh
4 Tbs. Fresh basil, finely chopped
1 Lb. Whole- milk ricotta
4 Tbs. coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 Large egg
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
1 Cup Parmesan, freshly grated
1/2 Lb. Fresh whole-milk mozzarella, shredded
6 Eggs, hard-boiled, peeled, and thinly sliced
Salt & freshly-ground black pepper to taste (see end notes)
8-10 oz Lasagne
Additional Italian flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Preparation:

For the Sauce:

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot (at least 4 quarts) over medium-high heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic and sauté, shaking the pan for about one minute; then add the diced onions. Lower the heat to medium and sauté the onions for 3-4 minutes until they wilt and become translucent.

Add the sausage meat, and sauté, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon or the back of a fork as they go in. Add the ground beef, breaking it up as well. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the meats lose their color and begin to brown.

While the meats are cooking, put the tomato paste into a bowl, rinse out the can with wine and add it to the bowl. Stir gently with a fork to dissolve the tomato paste, then add an additional can of wine (This is how my grandmother measured, but it comes to 12 oz., a cup and a half.) Stir the mixture into the meats, raise the heat to high and boil for a minute or two, evaporating the alcohol.

Lower the heat to medium, add the canned tomatoes and bring the pot to a simmer. Adjust the heat so the sauce bubbles gently. Add the oregano and half the basil; partially cover the pan so that the sauce gives up some of its liquid. Simmer gently for about one and one half hours, stirring occasionally.

For the filling:

Beat the egg in a bowl, then stir in the ricotta. Stir in the Parmesan, the remaining basil, parsley, and nutmeg. Set the mixture aside.

Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Using an oven-proof casserole approximately 9 x 13 inches with 2-inch sides, ladle a cup of sauce over the bottom and spread evenly. Place three or four sheets of lasagne over the sauce, then follow with a ladle or two of sauce. Now gently spread approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the ricotta mixture over the meat sauce layer. Atop the ricotta, place 10 slices of hard-boiled egg (roughly defining each portion). Follow with a sprinkling of Parmesan and a sprinkling of mozzarella.

Repeat this sequence: pasta, sauce, ricotta, egg + the grated cheeses until you’ve filled the pan within 3/4 inch of the top. Add a final layer of pasta and top with a thin layer of sauce.

You may not use all the pasta in a 1-Lb. box and you will have leftover sauce–never a bad thing!

We recommend that the pan be sealed with aluminum foil and baked, in the middle of the oven, for at least 50 minutes. Then, test the texture of the cooked pasta (as you would a cake) with a straw or knife blade. When it’s cooked to your satisfaction, sprinkle on the last layer of mozzarella and place the uncovered pan back in the oven. TIP: Placing a baking sheet on the rack below the uncovered pan will catch any drips.

Bake just long enough to melt the cheese and/or brown the top of the lasagne. Remove from the oven and let it sit at least 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each portion with parsley.

Lasagne is also delectable at room temperature.

Serves 10 as the pasta course in a feast or 6-8 as a substantial main dish.

About the Ingredients:

The time involved in making lasagne demands that you use first-rate ingredients. If you are not growing your own herbs, it’s worth buying fresh basil, Italian parsley, and oregano, rather than substituting dried herbs. If you use low-fat or fat-free cheeses or ultra-lean meat, you will diminish the rich flavors of the dish. Fats and oils are what hold and mellow the aromatic components of the herbs, spices, and garlic. Remember, this is celebratory food, part of a much larger spread. Each serving should be small and slowly savored. Furthermore, in Italy, lasagne was—and still is—a treat enjoyed only a few times each year.

We’ve included salt & freshly ground black pepper in the ingredient list, but we find that with the sausage, cheeses and canned tomatoes, the dish is amply seasoned.