Today marks the centennial of my mother’s birth. She’s not around to celebrate, having passed away 24 years ago, but her memory doesn’t fade from my mind or the minds of my siblings. We all enjoy good food and a lot of that comes from the fact that she was an excellent cook, always feeding us with delicious, well prepared food mostly out of the Italian-American culinary idiom and always from a deep, abiding love. Maybe because of that love, so much of what she prepared stays with us today in our kitchens and on our tables. Alas, I no longer eat a lot of pasta or carbs in general, but I still do for special occasions. Unfortunately, with the holidays upon us, my siblings and I could not get together for a proper celebration of this important memorial on this very day, but thanks to modern communications, we managed to do so virtually this weekend, with each of us remembering our mother by either preparing or ordering at a restaurant a dish that we came to love because she made it for us, either on a daily basis or for special occasions. To honor her memory, since pasta was such a fundamental part of our celebration diet, this post will include photos and instructions to some of her pasta dishes that we recall most fondly.
My personal favorite, a dish that I would ALWAYS request on my birthday, was her Bucatini with crab sauce. This dish, utilizing fresh blue crabs, is my personal equivalent to Anton Ego’s ratatouille in the Disney movie of the same name. It has such deep flavor memories for me that always make me feel good. Fortunately, it is a dish, that while I will never make it as well as she did, I can do fairly passably when I can find fresh, live hard-shelled blue crabs. I have written about it here with instructions in how to make it. This wasn’t easy, as my mother never used a recipe, but added “a little of this and a little of that” when she cooked. She cooked by instinct, which is how I learned to cook and how I still do.
I love seafood and a big part of that comes from the fact that my mother was very, very good at cooking it, especially as a central component of a pasta sauce. Every once in awhile my father would come home with a nice, fresh chunk of bluefin tuna, which she would poach in a tomato sauce and serve over either bucatini or perciatelli pasta. In respect of its status as a species in danger of extinction, I try to stay away from bluefin nowadays, but this weekend I came across a nice piece of ahi tuna, which I used to make my mother’s tuna sauce in her honor. This is actually a very simple sauce to make, requiring little more than good quality ingredients like fresh tuna, DOP San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onion, olive oil, fresh basil and seasoning. For a 500g box of pasta, I used a 32 oz jar of crushed tomatoes, an equal amount of water, a half of a medium sized onion and a large clove of garlic. The onion and garlic were diced and cooked in olive oil over low medium heat until the onion was translucent, at which point the heat was increased to medium high and the tuna, broken into chunks, was added and quickly browned on all sides. The tomatoes and water were added and the sauce left to simmer for about an hour over low heat after having been brought to a low boil. In a separate pot of salted water, the pasta was cooked until al dente and transferred into a warmed serving bowl. The sauce was added to the pasta along with fresh basil. Here is a slightly different version of the dish.
The dish that I learned how to make from her that I make most often and which has probably become my best dish, most often requested by my sons and my wife for birthdays and special occasions is her Linguine with White Clam Sauce. The hardest part of making this classic is shucking the clams without losing their precious juices. It is the fresh clam juice, in my opinion that makes the dish. For 500g of linguine I use at least 3 dozen littleneck clams, plenty of sliced garlic, chopped, fresh parsley and lately a bit of chili pepper, usually Aleppo pepper. Some people like to just add the entire clam, shell and all, to the dish, but I find the shells to be a nuisance serving no useful purpose, though, as in the photo above, I will occasionally place one shell in an individual bowl just for decoration. My mother didn’t use white wine in her clam sauce and neither do I as I feel that it dilutes the clam flavor. On the side, in a glass, that’s another story!
Seafood was not the only base for her sauces. She was great building them around vegetables, cheese and meat too. We loved her lentils with ditalini, cavatelli with broccoli, mafalde with ricotta and her simple Marinara sauce that was useful for those times that she may have been time-stressed. The vegetarian sauces were great, but for the most common special occasions, Sundays, she would typically make a sauce built around some kind of meat. The ones that have survived the generational transition with the most ardor were her Sunday Meat in the Gravy, usually served with Rigatoni, ziti or penne, and her Fusilli with Chopped Meat Sauce (aka Bolognese).
As always, top quality ingredients are key to making the meat in the gravy, especially the meat, which usually features pork and/or beef braciole (pounded, stuffed, rolled and tied flank steaks), Italian pork sausages, homemade meatballs and sometimes, a pork shank or chop.
Another major component to that dish is good ricotta, which gets lopped onto the served bowl of pasta and either mixed throughout the sauce or stays on the side for a change of pace.
Fusilli with chopped meat sauce was another family favorite typically made by my mother on Sundays or other special family meals. My brother, Gregory, and his wife, Grace, made it this weekend to celebrate my mother. The texture of the fusilli makes a huge difference for this dish, which is not quite the same with any other pasta. Each of us has evolved the dishes over time to our own individual palates. The ricotta would never have been included for this dish at our parents’ table.
The funny thing, though, is that while ricotta was generally taboo with the fusilli, that didn’t apply to other dishes that incorporated chopped meat or sausage, such as baked ziti or rigatoni, which often incorporated chopped beef in the tomato sauce that was mixed with ricotta and Fior di latte (aka mozzarella, but not mozzarella di bufala). This was chosen by my sister and my niece Christina with her family to honor our mother.
The dish that was the centerpiece of every major holiday and family celebration, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, was my mother’s Lasagna. The key here was a good meat sauce with chopped beef and Italian sausage with LOTS of ricotta and some mozzarella. Each ingredient component (lasagne, tomato sauce, chopped meat/sausage and mozzarella) was proportioned equally except for the ricotta, which was loaded on at three times the amount of any other ingredient. Of course, this is what we made and ate to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Irma Sconzo! It was delicious! Mom would have been proud!