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Guest Post: Life Lessons from Nonno’s Garden

2013-08-30 16.23.16

Jerry Buccilli joins us for his fourth guest post with An Italian-Canadian Life. We love his writing, memories and recipes and this is another great addition. Thanks Jerry!

My Dad will be celebrating his 80th birthday this May. He’s had a good, long and colorful life. Sometimes there were dark periods (as when mom passed away) but for the most part no regrets. Since his children began having children of their own we all began calling him “nonno”….even his own children. He’s proud of this reference and often says that his best accomplishment in life was to raise his family.

As with most Italian men of his generation he’s also incredibly proud of his garden. As far back as my memory takes me I remember my father working in the garden during the long summer months. He’d work there so much that we often had lunch outside so he could quickly return to his “work.”  There’d always be something to do: a tomato plant to tie so it wouldn’t fall over; zucchini to pick; herbs to cut, trim and hang up; watering, shoveling, cleaning, etc….There was always something.

Sometimes, when the garden was in full bloom and it was having a good year he would whistle or even sing. My mom would be sitting a few feet away near the patio and she’d ask him to sing to her. At first he would hesitate but then he’d begin to belt out some old tune and mom would smile.

Life was good. He was always the happiest in his garden with his wife by his side.

Often I would sit with him in the middle of the garden and we would talk. My father would tell me stories from his youth. Or his days in Venezuela when he and his father and brother travelled across the Atlantic to find work when WWII left Italy in economic upheaval and work were scarce.

Recipe: Sal’s Meat Sauce

meat sauce recipe

I do a lot of cooking for our house, but the one thing I don’t do with any frequency: make sauce. Sure I do quick tomato sauces (what people call marinara or arrabbiata sauces), but those long-boiling, Sunday-dinner, one huge pot of gold sauce (sugo) – that’s really my mom’s and my husband’s domains. They do it well, really well, so I don’t bother to challenge them on it.

And I have to say, there’s nothing like walking into a house where tomato sauce has been bubbling away all day. The warmth and the pure, sweet smell generates hunger pangs right away. I once had a doctor suggest I was allergic to tomatoes and that I should cut them out of my diet to be sure – I couldn’t fathom it and I still haven’t tried it. For Italians, tomato sauce is the ultimate comfort food and it’s no wonder that I get requests for tomato sauce recipes from readers and friends.

Everyone has their own take on tomato sauce and no one way is correct – they are all perfect in their own way. Each has a special touch from the sauce maker. This recipe was originally called “Sal’s Nonno’s Sauce.” That is, it comes from my husband’s grandfather. But truth be told, it’s actually a mixture of his grandparent’s recipes (from both sides) that make up this awesome sauce. True to form, it really is Sal’s own recipe now that he’s perfected it. And it always gets rave reviews. The shredded meat makes this sauce perfect for huge pasta shapes like rigatoni or a lasgana or pasta al forno.

Many thanks to my husband for pausing long enough for me to take photos and our good friend who spent the day with us making sauce, reminding me to take photos and write this recipe down finally.

nonno's sauce recipe

Meat Sauce
500g (1 pound) total of three types of meat. (Either a mixture of pork, veal, and goat OR three different cuts of the same type of meat)
Salt and pepper
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 cloves chopped garlic
2.8kg (100 ounces) of peeled tomatoes
6 cups room temperature water
Fresh basil and parsley

Recipe: Pitticelle Cucuzze (Zucchini Fritters)

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There’s zucchinis coming out of gardens all over the place and today I’m preparing one of my favourite uses for them: pitticelle cucuzze. These zucchini fritters are the ultimate summer snack: light, crispy and made with readily available ingredients. And boy are they available! Our Sicilian zucchini (called tromboncino)-which was featured in my recipe for Tenerumi Pasta-has produced massive zucchini at 4.25 feet long and 6.8 pounds for the largest one.

My grandfather always used to make pitticelle cucuzze during the summer and I struggled to say the Calabrese name for zucchini right: cucuzza. I often mixed it up with Cocuzza, the name of a mountain region in Calabria (Monte Cocuzza). Either way, it’s way more fun to say than the traditional Italian name: zucchino or zucchine.

These pitticelle are a great way to use the zucchini but also zucchini flowers. Many people fry up zucchini flowers on their own and my comare, in Sicilian-style, breads the zucchini flowers and cooks them up like a cutlet (also very good!). In these pitticelle, the flowers add colour and taste but you can make them without the flowers.

Here a tip about pitticelle cucuzze: they are best right out of the frying pan or the next day toasted up to crispy in the oven. Want a little some extra in the pitticelle? Sometimes if my grandfather had it, he would add some shredded mozzarella to the batter as well.

(If you missed my previous posting on pitticelle/fritelle/fritters, check out my explanation of these snacks along with my recipe for pitticelle di pane).

pitticelle_cucuz_1

Pitticelle Cucuzze
2 cups packed thinly sliced zucchini
5-6 zucchini flowers (optional)
4 eggs
1 cup room temperature water
1-2 tablespoons salt (to prepare the zucchini, you’ll wash this off after)
1/2 teaspoon salt (for the batter)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil (to taste, optional)
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Celebrating Italian-style with Cheese Rolling and the Grease Pole Climb

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A few weeks ago, the sun was bright in the sky and the clouds were moving swiftly past. Walking through a festival, I saw fingers in the crowd pointing upward and I had to squint to see what the commotion was. There, at the top of a very tall pole, a prosciutto was swaying in the breeze. It’s one of the stranger things I’ve seen, but for Guelph, Ontario, it’s a yearly occurrence.

Naturally for Italians, food is often a central part of celebrations. The annual Italian Festival in Guelph takes on two age-old Italian festa traditions featuring food: the Grease Pole Climb and Cheese Rolling. (I would also suggest it has a third – eat as much good food as you can!) Guelph is a perfect place to take in these events. Many Italians settled in this city and it’s said that even the name is a form of the Italian word “Guelfo.” Guelph is also a “sister city” with Provincia di Treviso, Italy.

guelph_1

My mother remembers the grease pole competitions in Italy as a child, happening when there was festas around a Saint’s Day or religious holiday. As the name suggests, competitors attempt to reach the top of a greased pole to win a prize. In Italy, a pole was erected in the town piazza and prizes of various foods were hung from the top. My mom recalls that the pole was not as greasy as the one here in Guelph and the wheel at the top holding the prizes also turned. So, once a competitor got to the top, grabbing a hold of the hanging meat or cheese was difficult.

Recipe: Tenerumi Pasta (Zucchini shoot pasta)

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Rainy and cold, it’s been a terrible summer for my tomato plants though the garden is one of my favourite parts of the season. I derive a little joy and pride from anything we can manage to grow on our small plot. I also like trying out a few “experiments” or new vegetables. Last year, we had some colourful tomatoes. This year, we’re trying to grow long, Sicilian zucchini, commonly known as tromboncino. These large vines grow quickly (I measured up to 3 inches a day!), latching on to anything in their path. They hold pale green zucchini that can grow to three feet or more, dangling just above the ground. If you are ever in a neighbourhood of Italians, you’ll see these zucchini swinging from trellises, clothes lines or trees.

My husband grew up shadowing his grandfather in his garden, filled with tromboncino, and had always wanted to give the plant a try. My mom found some seeds and presented my husband with three plants in the spring. We planted all three and strung a rope from the fence to our house, guiding the zucchini along. The vines have started to weigh down the rope and we search desperately for zucchini every morning. So far we have a bulky plant and nothing to eat from it.

But that all changed a few days ago, both problems being solved with one solution. Recently my husband’s Sicilian Nonna visited our home and she looking upon our experiment with glee. Laughing at our sagging rope holding up the vines she had two things to say right away: first, we need to cut off some leaves and vines, the plant is too heavy and second, those tenerumi make a great pasta!

I had to ask for an explanation of “tenerumi” – certainly she didn’t mean the actual vegetables, the few zucchini that sprouted are only a few inches long. No, tenerumi are the offshoots of the main vine that stretch out, with young leaves at the tips and curly tendrils trying to grasp on to anything nearby. I’ve been pulling these shoots and tendrils back from the fence as they keep trying to make an escape for my neighbour’s yard and guide them in the right direction. The wisdom I gained from that Nonna visit was this: cutting off the tenerumi focuses the growth on the main lines of the plant (so they’ll grow big zucchini!), but also they are a delicacy to eat. Some even say they taste better than the zucchinis themselves.

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And so it came to be that that very night, after some delicate pruning of the zucchini plant, tenerumi pasta graced our dinner table. The dish has quite a bit of broth, but a fresh and light taste, that doesn’t really taste like zucchini. You can easily replace the tenerumi with swiss chard or spinach, or even add extra other greens to the dish. Since I have a lot of tenerumi to go through, I’ll be making this a few times. Fingers crossed that we get some actual zucchini out of this experiment eventually!

Tenerumi Pasta
250-300g pasta (for four people)
1 large onion
1 large or 2 medium potatoes
4 cups chopped tenerumi
1 cup peel tomatoes
olive oil
salt
Parmigiano Reggiano for sprinkling

Recipe: Pitticelle di Pane

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It’s pitticelle season! What’s that you ask? The word pitticelle is Calabrese dialect for the formal Italian frittelle. Either way, the best translation for pitticelle or frittelle is probably “fritter.” These pan-fried snacks seem to flourish in the summer for Italian families for, I think, two reasons: they are great for picnics and family gatherings and many feature fresh garden ingredients. My favourite pitticelle are Pitticelle di Cucuzzi (that’s Calabrese for Frittelle di Zucchine) which means Zucchini Fritters. The recipe for those is coming as soon as I have from fresh zucchini from the garden. A close second favourite is Pitticelle di Riso (Rice Fritters), made with arborio rice, the recipe for which I also hope to share soon.

Today’s pitticelle di pane recipe is relatively new to me, taught to me by my husband as they were a tradition in his family. If you thought the pitticelle/frittelle/fritter naming couldn’t get any more complicated, well you’re wrong. His family calls these types of snacks “pittiduci” in their dialect (I’m guessing a little on the spelling here). I was told that if I was going to put this recipe up on this blog, I had to call them pittiduci but instead I’m giving you all the names, the whole story. You decide what you want to call them. Even “crispy fried things” will do the trick, as long as they taste good!

These pitticelle/pittiduci/frittelle/fritter gems (whew, it’s getting long!) are made with the leftover seasoned breadcrumbs and egg wash used when making fettini which are breaded veal or chicken cutlets (Recipe for Fettini). This is another classic example of Italians not letting anything go to waste. Why throw out the breadcrumbs when you could make something out of them? These are the ultimate finger foods, quickly eaten up by visitors to the kitchen who wonder aloud “when is dinner going to be ready?” all the while trying to swipe a pitticelle as a pre-dinner snack. Often, by the time dinner is served, these crisp little guys are all gone.

Pitticelle di Pane (or Pittiduci di Pane or Frittelle di Pane)
leftover seasoned breadcrumbs (from breading chicken or veal)
leftover egg wash (from breading chicken or veal)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
milk
fresh chopped Italian parsley
vegetable oil for frying