Sunday, June 26, 2011

My mom's cooking advice - Segreti di cucina della mia mamma

When you live in a country where the average mom who uses a kitchen of the size of a mansion and a spoon which costs more than my entire kitchen utensil set, feeds her children hot dog and microwaved vegetables that taste like cardboard, if not pieces of onions or pickles from her turkey sandwich, you wonder what happened to their mothers and to the mothers of their mothers and to the mothers of the mothers of their mothers. Were they all attacked by zombies in the kitchen, fathers included?? Or has their working life sucked all the fun out of their meals? At least the English are constantly joking about how bad is English food and they don't pay a 20% tip at their restaurants. Can someone explain to me why here in the US everyone is happy with the American food?

I always thought every other mom (or father, if not the mother) was as good as mine in the kitchen but I was wrong (my post what's wrong with the American cooking is about this). The thing is, I never really watched my mother cooking, nor I asked her for advice. For years I took her cooking for granted and went to seek the excitement of ethnic food. Then, unlike my friends who stayed in Italy close to their mothers,  I quickly had to adopt the London "do it quickly" cooking style, which means that you put chilli in almost everything you cook to hide the taste. Now that I live so much farther away from Italy and that I try to reproduce my mother's dishes at home to feed William on a daily basis, I have realized that my mother has passed to me recipes worth gold. But how do I cook her dishes exactly the way she does?

William going to steal secrets in my mother's kitchen

While I was in Italy, I  asked my mother (and carefully observed) what she really does when she is in the kitchen. Below are some of the answers I got from her in this occasion together with the precious knowledge she passed to me via Skype in the last year or so.

Use onions, not garlic, unless you are cooking fish
Use Barilla spaghetti and fresh juicy tomatoes
What ingredients do you need for a simple pasta dish, say for 4 people?
Mom:"Vegetable oil (e.g. better if arachides oil), half an onion medium size, juicy plum tomatoes in can or, even better, juicy fresh tomatoes and spaghetti or other type of pasta. The Barilla and De Cecco brands are good. For a simple pasta sauce I cut the onion very thin, so I don't have to remove the pieces afterwards, and brown it in oil. This is what I call  "soffritto". Garlic? Oh nooo, I don't use garlic for making pasta sauce. Basil? You can add it at the end when the dish is almost ready. It is not necessary though."

So when do you use garlic?
Mom:"I use one or two cloves of garlic when I brown fish or when I saute vegetables such as spinach and zucchini in oil"
Me: "Do you remove the pieces of garlic at the end of the cooking?"
Mom: "Yes, I don't want to keep eating garlic all day long!"

How do you obtain a creamy sugo?
Mom: "I remove the skin and the seeds from the tomatoes (or plums in the can), then I add the resulting sauce (called "passata") to the thin slices of onions browned in oil (called "soffritto") and cook it with the lid on for about 15 minutes"

How do you remove the bits of skin of the tomatoes in the plums that come from the can?
Mom: "I use a fork to get the juice out of the plums and remove the bits that come out while I am doing that before adding the sauce to the soffritto"

How do you eliminate the sour taste of the tomatoes in the sauce?
Mom: "I add few pinches of salt and half a tea spoon of sugar, then I cook the sauce with the lid for at least 15 minutes"

Can you add vegetables, say zucchini, or chicken to the pasta sauce or is it something that only foreigners do?
Mom: "Chicken, certainly not. If you want to add vegetables, carrots and zucchini for instance, you brown them in the soffritto with the thin slices of onions. Then, when you see that the hard vegetables (carrots) are cooked, you add the tomatoes"

What do you do to avoid that the pasta sauce dries up?
Mom: "I add a mestolo (large soup spoon) of salty water from the pasta or from the boiled vegetables. By doing that, the sauce will get creamy"

What do you do to avoid that risotto dries up?
Mom:"I add a mestolo (large soup spoon) of boiled water or vegetable broth, each time I see that it is drying up"

How do you prepare chicken and vegetable broth?
Mom: "To make chicken broth, I boil the chicken in water with an onion, a potato, two carrots, sage, thyme and a pinch of salt. To make vegetable broth, I boil an onion, carrots, zucchini, potatoes (and whatever I want to add ) with sage, thyme and a pinch of salt. Otherwise, I add stock to boiling water in a glass and melt the stock to produce broth by using a fork.". 

How do you decide whether you should add vegetable, chicken or beef stock?
Mom: "I usually add vegetable broth to risottos and to soups. I add beef broth to the other dishes. This is what I do but there are no hard rules. I often use the water from boiled vegetables or from boiled chicken. Enrica, tutto fa brodo! (everything makes broth)!"

In which cases do you keep the lid on the saucepan when you are cooking?
Mom: "What a question! The only time when I don't keep the lid on on a pan is when I have to fry and when I let the wine, water or broth evaporate. Usually, you should keep the lid on when you are cooking!"

At what stage of the cooking do you usually add salt?
"It depends on what I am cooking but as a general rule I would say... just before I am happy that water is released into the mix but I always make things cook first. If I breadcrumb chicken for instance, I add salt to the chicken at the end, once the chicken is cooked.  Oh nooo, I don't add any salt or other spices during the preparation of the food!"

How many minutes do you leave the veggies in the pressure cooker once you have reached the pressure point?
Mom: "I cook vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and beans for about 5 minutes. If I leave them less than 5 minutes they are not cooked enough"

What's the quickest way for cooking a chicken turkey or pork roll?
Mom: "You can brown the meat in a soffritto with thin slices of onion, add salt, pepper, rosemary and herbs de provence. Then you add white wine - remember to remove the lid to let the wine evaporate - then you add the vegetables (carrots and potatoes or peas - either not both). You cover with the lid and cook the whole thing for half an hour"

How do I make William eat vegetables?
Mom: "Boil chopped zucchini, carrots, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and pinto beans together with finely chopped onion, garlic and parsley in salty vegetable broth for an hour. Then put the resulting minestrone in a food processor to make a passato di verdura. Most children eat this! Alternatively, you can cook vegetables like spinach, carrots and mushroom  "in umido" (browned in olive oil and garlic, with added salt, pepper and a trito of parlsely at the end). Otherwise, you can steam them and then add salt and olive oil to them"

How do I make William eat fish?
Mom: "Cod? Boil the whole fish with head and tail in water with lemon and parsley. Then, serve it with olive oil, salt and lemon juice on it .Alternatively, you can steam a sole and add crushed parsley, olive oil, salt and lemon juice to it at the end. If you don't mind the extra fat, you can cook it in butter, then add salt, lemon juice and parsley towards the end of the cooking "

What do I cook when William has an upset stomach?
Mom: "When you were not well, I was always giving you white rice with olive oil, salt and parmesan,  and boiled chicken with veggies as a second course. Can you remember?"

What food can I prepare when I don't have time to cook?
Mom: "the simplest pasta dish takes at least 20-30 minutes cooking time.  
Me: "Can you think of something quicker than that?"
Mom: "Mmm, no. Less than half an hour? All I can think of is an omelette, or something cooked the day before, which only needs heating! Otherwise, you can prepare cold antipasti such as prosciutto e melone or a salad made of tomatoes and mozzarella with salt, olive oil and oregano, which doesn't take long to make".

What do you use the microwave for?
Mom: "I only use it for defrosting and for heating a previously cooked meal. Nothing else."

How about sandwiches?
Mom: "Is this what you are going to give your poor husband? I hope not!"
Me: "But mom, that is what he likes!"
Mom:"I don't believe it. He might be saying that to be nice to you. I will ask him!"

What advice can you give a mom who wants to learn to cook?
Mom:"You don't need to be a chef to cook but someone who likes food. You need to practice with the resources that are available locally and  decide for yourself what needs doing to cook what you like".

Grazie mamma and happy cooking everyone!

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