My grandfather was a trouble maker.
He was the youngest of seven children and I can safely say he never lost his mischievous and child-like streak. He was a prankster, a laugher and a storyteller. My sister loves to tell the story of when, as I was reading in a hammock in our backyard, my grandfather snuck out of the garden where he was tending to his tomatoes and got on this hands and knees to crawl under the hammock to knock me out of it from below. He was in his late 70s and was giggling during the entire episode.
My grandfather was always active too, constantly on the go. For many years when I was a child springtime meant late night trips to go smelt fishing. We’d drive to a pier on a lake north of the city, unfurl a square net and dip it into the water and pull it up full of wriggling small fish. We’d usually run into family or family-friends in the same location. It was a fishing tradition that my grandparents had took part in ever since they had landed in Toronto. Gathering food in any way that was traditional (and money saving) like fishing, mushroom hunting or collecting dandelion leaves for salad, were regular occurrences. In fact, in the 1970s my grandfather would go with extended family to Lake Ontario, near Ashbridges bay, to fish for smelt at night. And ever the jokster, he would slip live fish into his sister’s pockets when they weren’t paying attention.
As I got older, the smelt started to disappear. I remember the few times we would go fishing at 1 or 2 in the morning only to come back with just a few. The population crashed in Lake Simcoe in the mid-1990s and a series of invasion species are suspected to keep their populations at bay. I haven’t had smelt in years so when I found them at a local grocery store, I snapped them up.
Smelts were a treat – not a full meal, but a full plate that we would share after a plate of pasta. Other than the frying, they weren’t dressed up in any way. Just fresh fish, fried to a crisp. So my pictures for this recipe don’t have a sprinkling of parsley, or a gremolata for added colour. This is just pure fish, how they were enjoyed. The only thing missing is my Nonno, eating the fried smelt with the heads still on, head first into his mouth with a gleam in his eye, knowing it would gross me out. It always gave him a good laugh.
1/2 pound fresh smelts, cleaned and patted dry with paper towels
1/4 cup all-purpose flour for dredging
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
Canola oil for frying
Every once and a while my mind wanders to dark, winter nights in my grandparent’s kitchen, where the stove had already been on for hours by the time I got there. This was a time of quiet comfort. The windows reflected our actions in the dark outside and the TV played Wheel of Fortune in the other room. The air was warm with cooking and echoed the quiet shuffle of my grandparent’s slippers on the tile floor. We never bothered to set the whole table for dinner, but threw a tablecloth on half and used a jumble of mismatched glasses and forks with our food.
While so many of the meals served at Nanna and Nonno’s house were familiar, my grandfather also tried new things whenever he felt inspired. Though the one consistent was the food was cooked low and slow. I highly suspect that this recipe is one of his experiments that stayed a regular feature for us (or maybe a few other children of Italian immigrants can prove me wrong). We loved rapini as winter vegetables, their bitter hardiness appearing on our plates for most of the winter. When I was younger, rapini were a bit of a harder taste for me except when presented this way: fried up with mashed potatoes. The creaminess of the mashed potatoes, fried to a crisp on the outside, mellowed the taste of the rapini. Sometimes we’d pair this “impanata” (the name given to something breaded or encased) with a protein, or sometimes just eat it on it’s own. Now it’s more often the dish I use to introduce people to rapini, before they get a full-blown taste of it.
The inside of this dish was always piping hot, burning your tongue almost, while the winter winds blew outside and the snow gathered against the back door. It was, and is, comfort food.
1 half bunch rapini, washed and chopped
4 to 5 medium potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
salt (as desired)
hot pepper flakes (as desired)
Wash and peel the potatoes. Place into cold water in a pot and bring to a boil. Boil until just cooked through (a fork or knife inserts easily). Drain and let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, clean and chop the rapini (for detailed instructions on that, click here). Chop the rapini into inch-long pieces.
After the potatoes have slightly cooled, mash them finely or put them through a ricer.
In a medium frying pan, heat the oil at medium heat. Add in the rapini, garlic, salt and hot pepper flakes (if desired). Cook the rapini until they are slightly soft. Add the potatoes to the frying pan and stir to fully combine, mashing the potatoes into the rapini.
Smooth out the top of the potato mixture and turn the heat down to medium-low. Allow the potatoes to cook until a crust forms on the bottom, which could take up to 20 minutes. You can check the bottom with a thin spatula but also by shaking the pan slightly to see when the potatoes release from the bottom.
When the bottom is browned, remove the potatoes to a plate and then flip it over while returning it to the frying pan to brown the other side, again for another 15-20 minutes.
Remove to a platter when done and cut, in pie slices, to serve.
As I’m writing this, my two-year-old son is admiring the Christmas tree while incessantly turning on and off its’ lights. He’s giggling and it is a good break in the silence. I’m excited about for Christmas for my son – who is finally understanding the season – but this holiday will also be tougher than most. My dad will be missing from the festivities and, as is expected, some things will just have to change this year as we struggle on without him. Maybe we will start new traditions, maybe we will eventually go back to all the things we used to do with him…but one thing I’m noticing my family isn’t compromising on is the food. We still have to have the right Christmas food, my dad would be wondering what we were doing if we didn’t do at least dinner right.
So what does that mean? Well, usually a Christmas Eve full of seafood – fried shrimp, salted cod (bacala) and usually lobster too – and a Christmas day that starts with pasta and ends with a-few-too-many-desserts. I might not be able to give all my readers a brand new recipe post this year for Christmas (forgive me), but I can provide some of my past favourites. Here’s some typical Italian foods that will be on our table this coming holiday. What will be on yours?
Colluri (Also called: cullurielli, ciambelle, bomboloni, buffarede, grispelle)
The requests for these potato doughnuts start shortly after Halloween and continue on to sausage making season in the spring. When they are fresh out of the fryer, they are hot, fluffy and soak up tomato sauce like a sponge. If you make them a day ahead, you warm them up in the oven and it creates a super-crisp outer shell to these seasonal favourites. Here is the recipe.
Fritto Misto (fried mixed seafood)
I would protest any Christmas Eve without this. Firstly, yes Christmas Eve is all about seafood traditionally, but secondly deep-fried shrimp and calamari are one of my biggest treats. So quick to cook and perfect with a squeeze of lemon. This is a really simple recipe and totally better than calamari at a restaurant (never mind WAY cheaper). Here is the recipe.
Pasta with Meatballs
Once we have had our fill of Christmas Eve seafood, Christmas Day brings out the heavy hitters. And in typical Italian fashion, yes, we start the meal with pasta. The sauce will have been simmering all day with various cuts of meat as well as meatballs and veal rolls. Here’s the truth though: you eat the pasta first and then fish the meat out of the sauce to enjoy it on it’s own (or with colluri – see above!). Here is the recipe.
The most common winter vegetables in Italian households, rapini is a bit bitter but is a great partner to other dishes that are so rich on the holidays. It’s really easy to prepare, a quick sautee with garlic and hot peppers, so it’s worth a try, at least once. Here is the recipe.
Honey Pinwheels (Also called cartellate or grispelle)
My kryptonite. Put these near me and all bets are off. Stop counting how many I’ve had because I will eat them all. Get them while they are fresh, because they won’t last long. And that’s all I’ll say about this recipe.
Turdilli (Also called tordilli, turdiddri or turtiddi)
These are strange little “cookies” that are so unique to Southern Italy. From a dough that rises, these are fried and then dunked in honey. No two recipes are the same but if these are a tradition to you, you’ll recognize them instantly. We even have two recipes, one made with wine, another done “plain.”
It’s been a while since I had the reason to dress up and celebrate. And this was a good reason. In November, the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario hosted the fourth annual Pentola d’Oro Awards Gala in Toronto. I was so pleased to be an invited guest, this great event (for which I have previously sat on the judging committee) honours leaders in the Italian-Canadian food industry – now that is something I can get behind.
My family used to own a restaurant, and now in my full-time job I work in the food industry as well, so I am very familiar with the time, effort, dedication, and pure sweat it takes to make a business grow. And to stay true to your roots, and what you believe in, to maintain traditions and the integrity of good food along the way can be tough.
But those who were honoured did just that. Most importantly to me, they strive to share the beauty of Italian living through food. And while the food and mingling was amazing that night, what struck me the most was the messages from the awards recipients.
Domenic Primucci, president of Pizza Nova, was awarded the City of Vaughan Italy-Canada Award Primucci, and spoke about the importance of culture in both food and business. “We have a void in the living legacy of our culture… Canada allows everyone to celebrate our culture but we must check our egos at the door and collaborate.”
“Italian immigrants worked very hard and significantly impacted this country. We place a lot of importance on food. Love and laughter around the kitchen table it’s where we learn right and wrong and the hard work our parents did,” said Carmine Fortino, Executive Vice President & Ontario Division Head for Metro Ontario Inc. Fortino was awarded the Jan K. Overweel Ltd. Pentola d’Oro Award.
Also, Rob Gentile, Chef at Buca Osteria & Enoteca was awarded the Pizza Nova Favourite Hotspot Award and eight Italian restaurants in Ontario were selected by the Italian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Development, Agriculture, Tourism, and Culture in collaboration with Unioncamere and ICCO to receive the Marchio Ospitalità Award. They were recognized for their dedication to Italian authenticity and meeting the highest standard in the industry.
The food was spectacular, the art was magical and the music from DIA was amazing. What stays with me long after these nights of awards though is the desire to strive to do better personally in living and preserving my culture. As Fortino noted, we all must “promote Italian food and culture in a Canadian way.” That’s something to be honoured.
My dad was this blog’s biggest fan. He read it religiously and phoned me to ask where the leftovers were of anything I made. If I hadn’t posted in a few weeks, he called to tell me people were expecting me to write and to get on it. He shared this blog with everyone he came across and told me to, no matter what, keep it up.
I lost my dad to complications of brain lesions (spread from what the doctors believe was a cancer they could never find) on September 9. So many events have happened in my life since I started the blog, but this one has the biggest impact.
My dad was one of my biggest supporters. No matter what recipe I tried, or what food I brought him he told me how good it was and easily ate it all. Weeks would have to pass before he could muster up any truth to me: “well, really, it needed more salt” or “no, Laura, that one wasn’t that great.” I can understand why he didn’t want to tell me anything critical since it often left me feeling as though I had let him down. My dad strived for the right thing, the right way, all the time.
Dad’s theory in life was that we can push through anything. It’s one of the lessons that will always stay with me. We all have the strength inside of us to keep pushing ourselves forward, to let fear and hesitation fall by the wayside, to make what we want to happen, happen. Dad did just that these last few months – he pushed hard to get through treatments and symptoms. He pushed us all to keep going no matter what doctors said or how he felt. So I need to keep going with this blog.
He was fiercely proud of being Italian, cherishing the language, the music, the culture and the food. In this last year he had become obsessed with righting a wrong from when he immigrated to Canada. Upon arrival, French nuns changed his name to Louis (not knowing how to spell or pronounce Luigi) and he had been given that name on all his identifications ever since. He hated it and spent hours on the phone trying to get his Italian name back. Recognizing and celebrating his heritage was, and is, important.
He taught anyone around him that family is everything. When my aunt’s kids were young, I remember him repeating to them constantly: “Who is your best friend? Your brother. Your sister. That’s your best friend.” And he meant it. He cherished having family all together, all the time. He never hesitated, not once, to help out anyone – whether it was to just fix something or to give advice. He spent hours fixing my house, tending to my newborn son and loving us however he could. He once spent three hours on the couch, with my newborn on his chest, letting us all get some sleep. He taught me in that moment what a father and grandfather, and for that matter a compassionate family man, really is. And he loved every minute of it. It is my favourite memory of dad. The memories and importance of family are why I need to keep going with this blog as well.
I know that I can never replace his presence and his love in our lives, but I can do my best to follow in the footsteps of a man who was strong, passionate, generous, driven and, in so many moments with family and friends, simply joyful. I will lead my family the same way Dad did. I hope that makes him proud. Dad, I love you. In his memory, I’ll be back to blogging shortly.
My grandfather used to sit out on his back patio, his legs stretched on a wobbly plastic chair, and “survey the land” (as I used to call it). After a long day working in his rather large backyard garden, there seemed to be nothing better than to enjoy the cool air of dusk, and the purple sky, while watching the garden shadows grow long.
And gardens do take a lot of work. Well, at least managing it the Italian way. We seed, prune and pluck, water diligently, tie and support, all to get the best out of our plants. My grandfather, and now me, never seemed to be the type of person to just “throw some seeds” and see what came.
And the result of all that work: a lot of vegetables. The first few tomatoes and peppers seem to come slowly and with great excitement surrounding their arrival. Then suddenly, sometime in August, it’s like the plants explode and the kitchen table is covered in vegetables and I’m scrambling to figure out what to do with them all. Here is one recipe that comes in handy during the summer bounty: tiella.
A traditional Southern Italian dish, tiella is a sort of baked casserole which, in some regions also includes mussels or some sort of seafood. In my family’s version though, vegetables are the star of the show. How else to best showcase all that hard work? Whether you just finishing picking in your own garden, or had a really successful shopping trip to the farmer’s market, break out your casserole dish and warm up the oven to have the best of summer all in one forkful.
4-5 medium tomatoes or 1 small can of plum tomatoes
1 medium zucchini (or two small zucchini)
1 red or yellow onion
4 medium potatoes
8 ounces flat green or yellow beans
fresh parsley or basil
salt & pepper to taste
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil