Local Author Writes Memoir of Food-Filled Italian Childhood
Times change, but family dinners are always special.
Marcia Russotto lives a very different life from that of her mother and grandmother.
"My mother and grandmother never worked," said Russotto. "They spent three-quarters of the day in the kitchen. They made all meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner - and they would start thinking about what to make for dinner right after lunch."
To do that today is almost impossible, unless you're a professional chef. Even a mother who does not work outside the home finds herself with a million things to do, especially out here in the suburbs where every activity requires a car trip.
Russotto, a Richland resident, does not have the luxury of cooking all day. She's a nurse in a very busy doctor's office and puts in long days. She has fond memories of her more leisurely childhood, however, and she wrote about them in her memoir, Always on Sunday: Memories of an Italian Childhood.
In the book, she reminisces about the fabulous foods she grew up with that were made with love and always with fresh ingredients.
"I don't even know what my mom or grandma had in their freezer," said Russotto. "They used nothing but fresh vegetables and meats."
I met Russotto at Author's Night last week at the Northern Tier Regional Library. She was appearing with local authors James Hollock, who wrote Born to Lose: Stanley Hoss & the Crime Spree that Gripped the Nation, and Maria Farina, author of Grave Robber: The Gypsy Chronicles. All were excellent speakers, and I bought a book from each of them. I've finished Russotto's and am part way through Hollock's. For those who like true crime, as I do, it's a must-read. It also features familiar townships and places such as the Venus Diner. I love those local connections.
Back to Russotto and cooking: She and I agree that you can eat fresh, from-scratch [or, pretty much from scratch] foods even if you work long hours. She employs a trick I use as well: double recipes and big batches. Leftovers can be frozen or reheated for the next several days.
"I do a lot of cooking on weekends," said Russotto. "I shop on Saturday morning and cook on Saturday and Sunday. When I have some free time I get out my cookbooks and think, 'What can I make?' While you're at it in the kitchen you might as well make several things."
Russotto and I no longer have the big Sunday dinners every week. People are busier today, and it's harder to get together. Other things have changed as well. Our "fresh" foods are more apt to have come from Chile than from Cranberry. We rely more on frozen ingredients, especially vegetables.
Cooking methods also are different. Russotto remembers her mother and grandmother making veggies in the afternoon—like a big pot of spinach and garlic—and letting them set until it was time to eat them. While the dish sounds delicious, our today's knowledge of food safety makes that a no-no.
Regular Sunday dinners or not, Italian or not [which I am not], food will always be a big part of family gatherings. At my house, we not only have spreads for the big holidays, we'll make a big deal out of a football game—especially a Steelers Super Bowl—to have an excuse for a food extravaganza.
Russotto said they always celebrate food at holidays as well and particularly cherish the tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. She laughs when she says that no matter how laden the table is, the women always say to each other, "Do you think we have enough food?"
Some things never change.
Recipes: Basic Tomato Sauce, Basic Meatballs and Cauliflower and Spaghetti Soup
I'm featuring three recipes from Russotto's book. My daughter picked out the soup recipe because she thought it looked interesting, and I decided on the other two. One of my son's favorite foods is meatballs, so I'm always looking for another good meatball recipe. You need the sauce, of course, to finish the cooking of the meatballs. All three dishes were absolutely delicious, and I had to laugh when I asked my son about the meatballs and he said, "They're great; they have a lot of flavor!" I guess the three-meat mix just beat out my standard ground beef recipes. She also has a cookbook available on her website with additional recipes.
Cauliflower and Spaghetti Soup
- 1½ cups cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 32 ounces chicken broth
- ½ cup marinara sauce [homemade or store bought]
- 1/3 box spaghetti, broken in 1-inch pieces
- Salt and pepper to taste
Brown garlic and cauliflower in a large saucepan with olive oil until tender, five to seven minutes. Add chicken broth; bring to a boil. Add pasta and salt and pepper. Simmer for six to eight minutes. Stir in marinara sauce. Ladle into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Basic Tomato Sauce
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 to 3 whole cloves garlic
- 1 large can crushed Italian tomatoes [she prefers "6 in 1" brand]
- 8 ounces tomato sauce
- 1 small can tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 to 2 sprigs fresh basil [basilacol]
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stock pot over medium heat, sauté the garlic in the olive oil. Sauté till soft, but do not burn. Add crushed tomatoes, sauce, paste and one or two cans of water [use the tomato paste can]. Stir and cook for 10 minutes. Add oregano, salt, pepper and torn basil leaves. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. The basil gives the sauce its sweetness. If you like you can add ½ teaspoon of sugar if you think the sauce is bitter. This makes enough sauce for one pound of pasta [with some left over].
Some Italian women simmer their sauce on low all day. This really isn't necessary, as it will be ready to serve over pasta in less than an hour.
Note from Russotto: Always use a wooden spoon when making sauce. This was enforced by Nana and my mother.
- 1½ pounds ground meat [the best is 1/3 beef, 1/3 pork and 1/3 veal]
- 2 slices torn, firm white bread [not soft packaged bread]
- 2 or 3 tablespoons milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup chopped onion
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoons pepper
Place meat in a large bowl; set aside. Tear the bread into small pieces, about the size of your fingernail, and put it in a medium mixing bowl. Pour milk over the bread and let it soak a few minutes. Add the beaten eggs, cheese, onion, parsley, salt and pepper to the bread. Stir the ingredients till well mixed. Add this mixture to the ground meat and mix with your hands until everything holds together. Lightly shape the mixture into 2-inch balls. The more you handle the mixture, the tougher the meatball will be. Heat about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet with minced garlic. Brown the meatballs on all sides. [They will finish cooking in the sauce.] Transfer meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate to drain some of the oil. Add the meatballs to a pot of basic tomato sauce, and continue simmering for 30 minutes. Makes about 16 meatballs.
Note: Giant Eagle sells what they call a "meatloaf mix" that is equal portions of ground pork, beef and veal. It's a 1½ pound package, so it's perfect for this recipe.