Jerry Della Femina
WHEN FOOD WAS LOVE (3/29/22)
I’m on vacation in Florida. Here’s a very old column. Hope it works…
My son J.T. cooked our Sunday dinner last week and it was scrumptious. He slow roasted a marinated pork shoulder and served it with Cuban mojo sauce (lime, garlic, cumin, oregano, mint, olive oil) and made beer-braised balsamic lamb belly with puréed cauliflower.
All five of my kids have turned out to be fantastic cooks.
That makes me so happy because I think the best thing you can leave your children is a great love of food and the ability to cook a delicious meal.
I would like to think it’s in the genes.
It wasn’t until my family went from being dirt poor to scrambling up to the lowest rung of the middle-class ladder that we could afford to eat foods that were bad for us. Up until then there had been nothing but nutritious, delicious, simple food that cost pennies to prepare. The recipes came from Italy. They had never been written down but had been passed on from generation to generation.
There was plenty of pasta covered with scrumptious sauces. The simplest, and my favorite, cost just about 15 cents per portion to prepare. It was 10 cloves of garlic that had been simmered in olive oil until they were a mahogany brown. The oil was not virgin olive oil, since Italian families of the day demanded virginity from their daughters, not their olive oil.
One or two anchovies were added to the hot oil and stirred until they had dissolved into tiny little salty flakes. A pinch of hot red pepper flakes was tossed into the skillet at the last minute and then the cooked spaghetti was added to the garlic oil skillet until all the flavors were infused in the pasta. A family of four had this treat for less than a dollar.
In my old neighborhood, which was near Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, we always had plenty of fresh, just-caught fish, sold by the fisherman who pulled it from the ocean and sold it from street to street. Chicken was bought at Lavote’s Chicken Market, where live chickens roamed at your feet as you picked them out. Their feed was corn without chemicals.
Our bread was hard-crusted wheat. Silvercup and Tip Top were “American” breads and were too costly and too mushy. Our bread came warm from a bakery that had its ovens in the back.
Packaged foods were too expensive, so the beans and lentils and vegetables that went into rich, tasty soups were all bought fresh and the soup made from scratch.
We only drank black espresso in giant cups. It was freshly ground at Mazzola’s Coffee Store on Avenue U, because all the other brown coffees (from Maxwell House, etc.) were considered “American coffee,” and we didn’t eat or drink anything that was American. We only spoke Italian…we only ate Italian.
Once, my mother, in a fit of rebellion, tried to make an instant Betty Crocker apple pie. My grandmother went wild. She put a curse on the pie and we all got sick to our stomachs when we ate it. My grandmother walked around with an “I told you so” look on her face for days.
When I was 16 I introduced ketchup and mayonnaise to the family and they looked at me as though I had been captured by aliens.
Recipes revolved around my grandmother’s hand. The spoon was not part of her recipe formula – her fingers were. “How much fresh parsley?” my mother would ask. “You know, half a handful,” my grandmother would reply.
In my house, food was love.
Good marks at school were greeted with a stone face and a mumbled, “Thassa nice.” A clean plate at the end of a meal was treated as a great accomplishment, worthy of a compliment.
I’m glad my grandmother wasn’t alive to see the invention of the Ziploc Freezer Bag. It would have killed her. Keeping leftovers for more than a few hours was unheard of in her world, and no food was frozen. Sunday’s leftover pasta became a frittata and was served cold and delicious as my school lunch the next day.
Unlike today, we ate food – we never took pictures of it. If I had ever tried to take a picture of a meal in those days, my family would have had me committed to an insane asylum.
Ask anyone you know about his or her childhood and a favorite food experience will be remembered in seconds. No one talks about food without smiling. Around the world, food is the great equalizer. That doesn’t include kale, of course, which is a crappy designer vegetable.
Those of us who have homes or rent places on the East End are lucky. We live among some great farms where corn and tomatoes and potatoes and the freshest, most incredible vegetables grow in abundance. In the spring we pick ripe red strawberries and in the fall we pick sweet delicious apples. In the summer we drive past row upon row of some of the best corn grown anywhere in this country. Our ocean off Montauk yields tons of fish every day, and there are many great restaurants and food stores to make every meal you eat a great Hamptons memory.
Since no one, including Hannibal Lecter, is modest about their culinary accomplishments, below you’ll find one of my favorite recipes…and if, after you taste it, you say, “The shmuck may not be able to write too well, but he sure can cook,” I will be happy.
SUN-DRIED TOMATO PASTA DELLA FEMINA
1 pound of sun-dried tomatoes in their oil
7 cloves of garlic
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup olive oil (use oil drained from the sun-dried tomatoes and add olive oil to top off to one cup)
1 1/2 pounds dry capellini (spaghetti will do fine, too)
- Place sun-dried tomatoes, oil, garlic, salt and cayenne pepper in a food processor with chopping blade.
- Pulse blade until tomatoes mixture turns into a loose, oily paste.
- Toss sauce in a large bowl with cooked pasta and keep covered for at least four hours.
- Toss again and serve pasta at room temperature.
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