Written by Trilogy at Redmond Ridge Member Sharon Ciarla Olsen
Founder of the Italian Interest Group of Trilogy at Redmond Ridge
Italians take their cooking very seriously. If they are privileged enough to ask, observe, and put down on paper the recipes that mom, dad, grandparents, aunts or uncles kept in their heads, they are very fortunate. These recipes are legacies that are passed from one generation to the next, and will continue to be passed for generations to come.
The tastes, styles, and ingredients of Italian cooking can vary greatly by region. Italian dishes are influenced by French, Arabic, Greek, and Spanish cultures, as well as other nearby countries. They’re also strongly influenced by geography – by the mountains and sea that surround Italy. For as many different regions and dialects that exist in this country, there are just as many different styles of cooking. The common factor is that all are prepared with love and a passion for food.
In northern Italy, the food is rich. Risotto, red meats and pasta are typically found on northern Italian plates. Cooks in this region favor hearty vegetables and richer sauces – Italian comfort food, you might say. On the island of Sardinia, there is a French influence. The food is generally simple and pure (no strong tasting sauces or seasonings), but very delicious. Sicilian food shows strong Spanish, Greek, and Arabic influences. This island is especially known for its desserts, using local Sicilian ingredients like almonds, honey, citrus, and apricots.
In southern Italy, where my family is from, most dishes feature fish, seafood, lamb, or pork. Lighter vegetables, salads, and of course tomatoes are all part of the southern culinary culture. The dishes I grew up on were polenta, spaghetti, rigatoni, and Mostacolli (called Penne in the U.S.). The meats on my family’s dinner table were mainly pork, rabbit, and chicken. During the Christmas season, my grandmother cooked a dish called Bacola, or salted codfish. She soaked the fish in salted water, which she changed each day, and then served it with marinara sauce or olive oil, garlic and parsley. Another favorite dish of my grandmother’s was vermicelli. She made bread crumbs out of day old bread and combined chopped walnuts and sugar, then sprinkled the mixture on top of the vermicelli.
My grandmother never served alcohol. I imagine it was because when my great grandmother made wine my great grandfather sat on the porch, puffing on his pipe and drinking great grandma’s Vino! Maybe grandma thought it was too much of a good thing? If she only knew that I now make wine, just as my great grandmother did!
With southern Italian routes, my diet as a child consisted of numerous vegetables. To this day, I rarely eat red meat. I do, however, love red sauce on pasta, which is common in southern Italy, where tomatoes are abundant. (If you are a gardener, I would recommend planting some San Marzano tomato starters. This tomato is wonderfully firm and has a sweet taste.)
As a young girl, I often stood next to my grandmother as she prepared broccoli. She would cut and peel the stems and put one in the boiling water, one in her mouth, and one in my mouth saying, “Mangia.” I never knew the difference and always ate whatever vegetable my grandmother gave me as she chopped and diced as I stood next to her.
I was the lucky one out of all my siblings and most of my cousins to be able to stand and watch while my grandmother and great aunt worked their magic. These early cooking lessons enabled me to carry on the knowledge and love of cooking that I have today. If one cooks with love, anything is possible.
The following was a favorite recipe of my grandmother and my great aunt.
Ingredients for filling:
- 2 or more pork steaks or pork chops
- 1 small onion
- 1 cup cooked spinach; “squeeze well”
Preparation of filling:
Fry pork a bit before grinding it; then grind. Add 2-3 eggs to the mixture as well as two cloves of garlic. Add half teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of parsley. Simmer all ingredients until well cooked. Cool and add 1 cup of Parmesan cheese. Stir well.
Ingredients for dough:
- 3 cups of flour
- 2 eggs
- just enough water to make mixture firm
Preparation of ravioli:
Mix ingredients together and let stand for five minutes. Cut dough into three pieces after working it lightly on a cutting board. Roll each piece as thin as a dime and round or square. Use a ravioli roller to cut the dough into ravioli strips. Fill half with the filling. Put the other half of the dough on top then press individually with the ravioli roller or pastry cutter. Drop raviolis into hot boiling salted water. They are done when they float to the top. Use whatever sauces you wish.
While Italian cuisine differs greatly from region to region, a sweet sip of Limoncello pronounced “Lemoanchello” is loved throughout Italy. When I visited Sorrento, I saw lemon trees that held lemons the size of baseballs.
To have your own taste of Italy at home, try this recipe for Limoncello, which is perfect for a warm spring or summer afternoon. Note that you’ll want this mixture to age for two to three weeks. The longer you can wait for it, the better!
- 10 lemons
- 1 liter of vodka (150 proof is best)
- 3 cups of white sugar
- 4 cups of water
1. Zest the lemons and place zest in a very large glass container or jar that has a lid. Pour in vodka. Cover loosely and let infuse for one week at room temperature.
2. After one week, combine sugar and water in medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Do not stir. Boil for 15 minutes. Allow the syrup to cool at room temperature. Put into a glass jar.
3. Stir vodka mixture into syrup. Strain into individual glass bottles that have been sterilized and seal each bottle with a cork. Let mixture age for 2-3 weeks (the longer the better)
4. When ready to serve, place bottle liquors into the freezer. When it is icy cold, serve the Limoncello in chilled glasses.
Ciao and Bon Appetito!
Godere della dolce vita! (Enjoy the sweet life!)