By Tina Albo:
I’ve always believed that the best dishes went beyond tradition and taste. To me, any recipe is a simple blueprint to build on—a blank canvas if you will. There will always be the standard ingredients that create the foundation; however, if you truly want to make it yours, then you need to look within and discover the unique tidbits that will truly make it enjoyable.
Case in point: my late Nonna Fortunata’s marinara sauce.
My older brothers and I were always excited when she sent our mother home with jars of her sauce to put on our favorite pastas. Her recipe was elegant in its simplicity. There were only a few ingredients to it: crushed tomatoes, crushed garlic, boiled meat (usually beef ribs), and freshly picked basil from her garden.
I can still fondly recall the pleasant aroma coming from her stove in the garage when the mixture simmered over low heat for several hours. To this day, that particular scent fills me with nostalgia and makes me feel thankful that I was able to spend so much time with Nonna Fortunata in my formative years. Looking back on all the happy memories I’ve built with my Nonni, I can’t help but want to keep their culinary traditions alive through the work I do in my kitchen.
I’m a singular creature when it comes to flavour. Although most would tell me not to mess with the simple perfection of her sauce, adding my little twists have enhanced the taste and made the combination uniquely mine.
I use a simple method to my madness when adding personal touches to recipes. I like food to be spicy, full of garlic, and very complex. Now, that doesn’t mean I eschew simple flavours—they have their merits. I just enjoy unlocking their hidden potential through my experimentation.
While Nonna Fortunata preferred simple combinations to flavour her sauce, I enjoy using Calabrese Cacciatore sausage to add further depth to my version. Cacciatore is a hard-cured, aged Italian sausage made from pork that, when cooked in a tomato sauce, adds a mouthwatering taste that will have you coming back for seconds or thirds. You can purchase this sausage in two flavours: mild and hot. Calabrian Chili Peppers give the hot version the potency I enjoy and adds the right amount of heat to the sauce.
Throughout my adult life, I've spent much time discovering and adapting recipes with my personal touches. I'd like to share a few of these tweaked family recipes with you, as well as some of my fondest memories of them.
Growing up, my parents were hardworking individuals who did their best to provide for my brothers and me. Both sets of my grandparents lived near us, so I was fortunate to stay with them while my mother and father were at work.
My late paternal grandfather, Ugo, was another excellent cook. From an early age, he instilled a belief in me that the best memories were always made in the kitchen, and I fondly look back on all the time we spent together.
Nonno Ugo was a simple man who enjoyed simple pleasures. If there was any trait that I inherited from him besides my love of wine, it would be that same love of all things simple—which is why his fried smelts were a favourite snack of mine. While his recipe only called for a little bit of salt and oregano in the way of seasoning, I've added pepper and chilli powder to give an extra kick. The smelts are delicious on their own or dipped in garlic aioli. This recipe takes about 20 minutes to complete and makes about 3 to 4 servings.
3/4 pound cleaned smelts with heads removed
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp white pepper
2 tbsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 cup vegetable oil for frying (safflower oil works just as well)
1. Whisk together flour, salt, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, chilli powder, and oregano in a pie plate.
2. Dredge the smelts in the flour mixture, coating both the outside and the cavity.
3. Heat oil in a frying pan, 1/4 inch deep over medium heat until hot.
4. Place coated fish in the hot oil.
5. Fry until crisp and browned, roughly 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
6. Remove fish with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
*If you enjoy your smelts extra crunchy, I recommend that you use panko bread crumbs with an egg wash. Panko absorbs just enough of the oil and keeps its crunch when fried.*
Pasta e Fagiole
Everyone has their own remedy for the common cold. Some turn to chicken soup, while some turn to other dishes for comfort.
Whenever I was ill and unable to attend school, my Nonno Ugo always came to the rescue. He was always prepared with a can of 7Up for my upset tummy and a bowl of his Pasta e Fagiole for a comforting lunch.
While we watched re-runs of The Flinstones and caught up on Days of Our Lives, we'd enjoy this simple soup together with my Nonna Ernesta. Now when I get bitten by the cold or flu bug, I miss those relaxing childhood afternoons, but I always know how to bring back that warmth and comfort.
Again, Nonno Ugo's version simply had salt and oregano as seasoning, but the addition of red pepper flakes and Calabrian hot sauce is all my own. This recipe easily makes 5 servings and takes about 40 minutes to complete altogether.
3 15-oz cans Romano beans
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves crushed garlic
4 oz cubed pancetta or regular bacon (approximately 4 slices)
6 cups of chicken broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 3/4 cups uncooked small pasta shells
1 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp Calabrian chilli sauce
1. Drain one can of Romano beans and set aside.
2. In a large stock pot, heat olive oil.
3. Add pancetta and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add in the crushed garlic and oregano and sauté for an additional 4 minutes.
4. Add the drained beans to the mixture and then add in the undrained cans of beans.
5. Pour in the chicken broth, salt, and crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil.
6. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
7. Remove from heat.
8. Add the red pepper flakes and the Calabrian chilli sauce. Stir to incorporate into mixture and serve.
This recipe will bring you comfort when you're ill and will stick to your ribs during the Autumn and Winter months. Either way, you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of this simple dish.
Beef and Barley Stew
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my wonderful mother in this article. She has been a constant source of support in my adult years, and I honestly don't know what I'd do without her in my life.
She is a hardworking woman who balanced a full-time University course load, three young children, and a demanding job at a local bank when she was just a couple of years younger than I am now. To this day, I am amazed by her resilience and am grateful for every sacrifice she made to ensure my brothers and I had the best possible upbringing.
While my father worked long, unforgiving hours in retail management, my mother kept the household going strong. When she finally graduated with her Bachelor's Degree in Education and began her career as an Elementary School Teacher, she came home every day and made sure there was a hot, delicious dinner on the table. No matter how ill she became or how tired she was, she always managed to make sure we never went hungry.
Soups and stews were a popular choice in our household, especially this beef and barley stew. My mom liked to keep her stews simple and delicious, so she only used salt, pepper, and garlic powder. The addition of chili powder and paprika are of my doing, as it adds an extra dimension of flavour that will stick to your ribs. This recipe takes around 8 hours and 20 min if you include the time you take to prepare your ingredients and serves up to 8 people.
1 lb lean cubed stew beef
1 tbsp flour
1 cup barley, rinsed
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 green onion, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp tuxedo pepper seasoning
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika
8 cups beef broth
1. Season stew beef with salt, tuxedo pepper, and garlic powder. Place in slow cooker.
2. Mix flour, chili powder, and paprika in a small bowl. Add to beef and stir until mixture has evenly coated the beef.
3. Add the carrots, celery, and onion into the slow cooker.
4. Pour in the beef broth.
5. Add in the barley and stir until there are no more clumps.
6. Place lid on slow cooker and set on Low for at least 8 hours.
This simple stew is perfect for those busy weeknights when the kids all have activities to run to. All you need to do is prepare the ingredients the night before and set your slow cooker for the next day. By the time you get home, you will have a simple, mouthwatering dinner ready to go.
Every family has its own collection of recipes, and the fun is in passing down the collection from generation to generation. The best part of it all is that, like traditional lore, the variations on such recipes reflect the individual family member's taste and personality, much like the development of a complex character.
Step out of your comfort zone and make it all yours!