Cooking with Italian Grandmothers and My Calabria

There are two books that I’ve been using in heavy rotation in the kitchen. Both are about Italian food, and old ways of doing things–two of my favorite topics.

The first is called Cooking with Italian Grandmothers by Jessica Theroux. I heard about Jessica’s project through a DVD called Rabbits and Wrinkles, short documentary films of Italian grandmamas wandering around in funny socks and picking weeds, then showing us how they cook them. The grandma I watched cook was from Calabria, the extreme southern part of Italy. She pulled up bean plants in a foggy field, shelled and then simmered them in a wood-fired oven. She got out a basket and foraged for wild greens. I felt deprived that I wasn’t there to eat this amazing feast she prepared from the earth. The DVDs morphed into CwIG, and chronicles Jessica’s journey around Italy, and her lessons in cooking. For Thanksgiving I’ve decided to ditch the turkey and make a series of dumpling/dumpling related foods instead. Stuff like rabbit raviolis and Polish plum dumplings. CwIG is going to help that dumpling dinner: I loved the gnocchi recipe, which yielded these light and chewy friends.

I also have plans to make the baked semolina gnocchi. Oh! And the Polpette di Bietola (chard-sesame balls) –an amazing sounding/looking concoction of steamed chard rolled into a ball with ricotta, bread crumbs which are then rolled in seasame seeds and baked.

The second Italian grandma book involves a grandpa. It’s My Calabria, a cookbook about Calabrian food by Rosetta Costantino. I met Rosetta through a friend and have taken a cooking class from her before (see Hamish Bowles hilarious account of our antics in the November issue of Vogue). And I recently met her father and mother, who are old-school Italians, and are bad-asses in the garden and kitchen respectively. The book is really a love song to the old ways Rosetta’s parents do things: they reuse everything, they preserve and save things for winter, and they seem to grow or make most things they need. Rosetta’s dad, for example, grows and dries his own peppers and his wife grinds them up to make Peperoncino. The tomato trellis in their garden is truly amazing. Don’t worry that you’ll have to use hard-to find ingredients–the Calabrians are all about tomatoes, onions, and zucchini, seen here in the Parmigiana di Zucchine that I made the other night.

But there’s also some weird stuff too! Like the Pitta con Verdura, which is like a calzone but stuffed with borage leaves (if you don’t have borage, you can use chard instead). I had never eaten borage leaves before, but now will never go back, they are so buttery. One of my favorite sections was about the Calabrian pantry–how to make salt-cured anchovies, sun-dried zucchini (wtf? i never thought of that!), candied orange peel. Rosetta tells us that Calabrians never waste anything, so when I found myself with a bunch of figs, I made the Marmellata di Fichi with lovely results.

For dessert on Thanksgiving, I might attempt the Chinulille, sweet ravioli filled with ricotta and candied orange and then (gulp) deep fried. I’m also looking lovingly at the photo on page 153, which is of a pair of goat stomachs which are hanging on some smoky beams. The stomachs aren’t to eat, but are used to make rennet, something Rosetta’s dad did when he was a goatherder and cheesemaker in Italy. This page is especially enticing to me as I have three bucklings on my hands this year, and am faced with the fact that they will not be able to stay–so why not make some rennet and then cheese from that rennet? To use every part, to transform something sad into something delightful.

Both of these books made me have hope that old ways can be rediscovered, as long as we are interested in them. Happy Thanksgiving-planning.


9 responses to “Cooking with Italian Grandmothers and My Calabria

  1. Love it! I, too, am obsessed with the old ways in the kitchen and have found a bunch of awesome historical recipe books on Mexican cuisine. Very helpful in impressing the Mexican in-laws 🙂

    And three bucks this year! wow. any chance you will be wethering any of them? I could use a lesson (and tool lending if possible) with the burdizzo. i got a boy this year who needs to be taken care of and the vet tells me they will only surgically castrate at 4-6 months for $130! shitters, I couldn’t even sell him for that. maybe you might be willing to give me a cheaper deal with the clampers?

  2. Great post- I am one of the unfortunates, who didn’t have an Italian anything in the family, and yet, I love Italian food. So, no learning gnocchi at Nonna’s knee for me. In fact, my mother’s spaghetti was so bad that I only recently (I’m 51) started cooking it at home- my husband used to have to order it out if he wanted spaghetti and meatballs. I’ve learned a lot from watching Lidia, but there’s always room for more. I put these on my wish list to get later when I can, and thanks for the reviews. They both look good!

  3. There’s an old Latin poem:

    Ego borago
    Gaudia semper ago

    Borage was a cheerful companion to me this summer, and sure seems to have lifted the spirits of the tomato plant that it was entangled with. I’ll have to try that calzone idea on the next one that grows.

  4. Mike in Madison

    If you try to do sundried zucchini, I would highly recommend using a dehydrator, solar oven or indoor oven on its lowest setting instead of just setting it in the sun. Because zucchini has so much moisture in it and is of such low acidity, there is a risk of insect eggs, mold or other contaminants before it has a chance to properly dry out. I’m sure there’s an “old way” to prevent this, but just keep in mind the risk of spoilage inherent to the product and adjust your method accordingly.

  5. Hey I see we have quite a bit in common — I have actually lived in Calabria for the past seven years and just reviewed Rosetta’s book myself . . . plus I have two adorable goaties outside as well 🙂

  6. Just to be clear, my review of Rosetta’s book is at my other site, Bleeding Espresso 🙂

  7. hi michelle from goat berries! awesome, did you love calabria? i might be going in may to meet some goat people. xon

  8. Goat people in Calabria or in Italy in general? I’m still here…so let me know if you’re coming 🙂

  9. Italians love discovering new foods and new way of preparing familiar dishes. Every year there’s more and more interest in the traditional cuisine of the various regions and in biological, environment friendly foods. Italian food for Italians is a reason of pride. You can recognize Italians abroad for their longing of typical dishes, pasta over every other. And you can see how dishearten they are when they try pasta outside Italy. Some upper class foreign restaurants have managed to master almost all the typical Italian dishes, but pasta still eludes them.

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