April is National Garlic Month (well, at least in the United States). But I’m adopting in my house too. I LOVE garlic and if there’s a way to add it into a recipe, I probably will. Look out for a garlic-filled recipe soon on this site!
I never though much about my love affair with garlic until a few years ago when I read that the Toronto Transit Commission had an old rule on the books about garlic. What does the supplier of buses, subways and streetcars have to do with garlic? Well apparently, the old rule was this: It is illegal to ride a street car in Toronto on a Sunday if you have been eating garlic.
My mind immediately went to my Italian family. This rule had to have been made to address the many new Italian immigrants to the city in the 40s and 50s. My mother, even as a young girl, remembers riding the streetcar in downtown Toronto and being told by other riders that she stunk. In fact, she was told all Italian smell because they ate garlic, onions and other flavourful food.
Sadly, the stereotype that “all Italians smell like garlic” is still prevalent today (don’t believe me? Google the phrase). And garlic’s role in the rich/poor divide is shocking as well. This NPR story on garlic from 2007 outlines the plan of some Italian chefs to ban the bulb and brings up the historical stigma of using garlic. It suggests that garlic was introduced, or at least became heavily used, during a time of poverty in Italy as the poor added it to flavour the meager meals they had to live on. It’s not surprising then, that many of the Italian dishes that have garlic are from southern Italy, where poverty was experienced widely, like pasta with garlic and olive oil, meat dishes where garlic flavours the oil and so on. Here’s a quote from the story:
“There are lots of prejudices that people who eat and smell of garlic are second class, backward, unsophisticated. It’s a class thing for many people.”
One year, it wasn’t until July that I found the last Easter egg that should have been part of my Easter hunt. Tucked behind the top of a cushion on my grandmother’s red velvet couch which stood watch over her formal living room, the egg’s colourful foil covering was an immediate reminder in the scorching heat of summer, of the surprises and joys of Easter.
Eggs were hidden two ways at my Nonna’s house: chocolate ones tucked away by my aunts for my sister and I and real ones by my Nonna in her traditional Easter bread. Fresh eggs, woven into handmade bread, coddled to gold-brown perfection was made for just this one event each year. Traditional to Calabria, bread made this way can have many names. In our dialect, it’s called “vavarillu” which refers to something being swaddled.
My Nonno was the primary dinner cook at my grandparent’s house, turning out patate fritte, pasta, soups and slow-cooked chicken and potatoes. But when it came to Easter bread – my Nonna really shined. It was a day-long affair and the eggs and loaves being counted out for which families they had to be taken to. Loaves were packed up for each relative that was to be visited. A family of four or more would get a wreath with four eggs in it, others would get smaller loaves with just one or two eggs. The eggs in the bread did more than represent spring and new beginnings. The shape of the loaf that had one egg twisted into it was said to be made to look like the baby Jesus – the egg being his head, then his body swaddled in cloth and his two feet emerging at the bottom.
To celebrate Easter with all my readers, I’m sharing here my family’s Easter bread recipe. You can find a few variations of this type of woven bread online, though many of them are sweet. In our family, it was made with plain bread to be shared during the Easter meal. My Nonna used chicken eggs originally, but with my husband’s family breeding ducks, we have access to free-range duck eggs that come in off-white, brown and a greenish-blue. The colours are perfect for Easter, without having to dye the eggs.
Happy Easter – I hope you find all the eggs and surprises you are looking for this spring!
1.5kg bread flour (also called hard wheat flour)
1.5 kg all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons salt (Kosher preferred)
5 cups warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil (optional)
whole washed raw eggs
The last few weeks I’ve seen a few glimpses of spring: a few hours of sunny sky, some higher temperatures, multiple bunny sightings and the birds have started their early morning chirping. The refreshing spring air though, is the best part. It brightens up my day, refreshes me and reminds me that a fresh start is around the corner. That sprightly feeling is something I also get from lemons…and limoncello!
Of late, I love adding lemon juice and lemon zest to recipes, whether in my cookies, on fish dishes, in pesto, wherever I can fit it in. Not only is lemon really good for you as it helps with digestion, balances your pH, etc., it also puts a spring feeling into your dishes. That may also be why limoncello is now my drink of choice. Limoncello, a lemon liqueur, offers an intense and vivid lemon flavour.
Making this drink is relatively new to my family, so I’ll file it under a “new tradition” as it now a regular feature at get-togethers. But limoncello has long been produced in southern Italy and, in fact, is the second-most popular liqueur in Italy. It’s made by steeping lemon zest in alcohol and mixing in a simple syrup. You can use this method to make a number of different types of liqueurs (hazelnut, coffee, orange, etc.) as long as you get your quantities and steeping times just right. Limoncello offers a smooth, sweet lemon taste, without any of the usual bitterness associated with lemons.
Traditionally, it’s served as an after-dinner digestivo but you can also use it as an ingredient in cocktails or desserts and even over ice cream.
7 good quality lemons
1 litre of 90 proof alcohol (That’s pure grain alcohol. You might need to find a speciality store to get this depending on where you live)
900 grams sugar
2 litre of water
(Photo by Kyle Bruggeman, Nebraska News21)
“Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers.” Buon Festa del Papà! It’s Saint Joseph’s Day (San Giuseppe)!
If you live or work anywhere near an Italian community, you may be acutely aware of a wave of cream-filled pastries lining bakery shelves today. This is all in celebration of St. Joseph. In the Catholic religion most saints and holy people have specially designated feast days. Italians are never ones to shy away from a feast – any reason to celebrate with food really – and Saint Joseph/San Giuseppe is a special one because it celebrates the father of Jesus. As such, this day is typically also known as father’s day in Italy (Buon Festa del Papà!). Also, in Italy you typically celebrate the day dedicated to the saint you were named after as well as your birthday. Finally, there’s this crazy delicious pastry assigned to March 19 – fried, cream added and a cherry on top. So, if you are religious, have a father, are named Joseph or just plain like Italian desserts – today’s the day to celebrate!
The snack of choice today is zeppole. That’s zeppoli if you are from the south of Italy and zeppola for the singular form. Today’s zeppole (as that word is applied to a few different types and shapes of fried dough) is a light dough or choux pastry formed in either a circle or a dough-nut shape, cut in half and stuffed with cream or decorated on top with cream and bits of candied cherry. Zeppole are also known by other names, including Bignè di S. Giuseppe and sfinge.
So how do you get from celebrating a Saint to eating fried dough?
It’s been a long and busy week. Sometimes the days fly by so quickly, I’m not sure what I’ve actually gotten done and what I’ve missed out on. Did I accomplish anything? It makes me think of this classic quote from an Italian poet:
“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.”
Antonio Porchia, 1886-1968
So in an attempt to reflect on the week, I leave you with this image. This vintage Italian postcard from 1945 is one is a long series of “popolana veneziana”, that is images of the populous or commoners of Venice. I love the colour of the scarf and her uncontrollable hair.
If you come from a big, crazy Italian family like ours I am sure you can relate on how hectic day to day life can become. So many things on the go. So many things to do. As much as you’d like to have more time it’s just not feasible. That’s why this recipe is perfect. Easy to make with not a lot of fuss and in the end you can make enough to have leftovers for two or three days. (Nothing wrong with leftovers so long as you follow proper storing procedures).
This recipe for Conchiglioni literally means “sea shells” and its name is derived from the shape of the pasta you will use. There are many variations to this dish depending on what part of Italy you come from. The funny thing about Italy is how controversial the topic of food can be. One person’s recipe from the north can vary astronomically from the same dish made in the south.
This recipe is the one we use every day. Keep in mind that you can get pretty creative with it. In Sicily they add raisins and green olives to the mixture. In Abbruzzo they add ground pork. Have fun with it. We tried to keep this recipe simple. Generally if you go to your local Italian eatery and ask for stuffed shells you’ll likely get this version.
Try out this recipe first and then build on it. It’s fun to experiment. Buon Appetito!
Conchiglioni – Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells
Serves up to 10 (serving size is 3 stuffed shells)
30 jumbo pasta shells
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cups of home-made marinara sauce
3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cups spinach, sautéed, drained and chopped
2 cups ricotta
1 cup of Parmesan cheese, grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper taste