Conversations over pasta
by Janice Nigro
When you are living alone, there isn’t normally much preparation for dinner. Eggs, salad, a roasted chicken from the grocery store, or maybe even a bag of popcorn. And do you have that with a glass of wine or not?
I am not so difficult to please when it comes to meals. I never turn down an invitation to a meal although if it’s Wonder bread cheese soufflé (really I had this once), I might have to think about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love big elaborate meals, but I could also be happy eating fresh pasta with my mom’s sauce and meatballs every day. Impossible except for the last 30 days.
My mother was in town for a month. We spent about 4 days each week visiting farmers markets around LA (maybe a whole other post on that). She knows what she is doing when she chooses fruit and vegetables. She will immediately tell you why something looks good or not, “The leaves look a little yellow.” Umm, well ok I will put the bok choy back.
My mother is a spectacular cook, and she loves doing it. So while she comes to LA because it’s so nice (usually better than Chicago at Christmas), she also cooks all of the things she likes but will not make just for one at home (yeah that’s my problem too).
Each night we would make a meal together and almost before that meal was over she would say, “We have to plan for tomorrow night.” For most nights this was pretty easy. My mother loves fresh pasta…
People are often under the impression that it takes some special talent to make homemade pasta. I don’t think so. Like most things, you just have to want to do it. And we want to do it often.
The favorite way to do it at the moment is with the chitarra, an apparatus which translated into English means guitar. The chitarra really is an instrument of wires strung lengthwise across a wooden platform, which cut through the pasta and make music at the same time. Two people make the job especially easy. But the water should be boiling when you start to cut the pasta so that it can be cooked immediately for the most desirable result. After all of the nights we made pasta, I can’t tell you exactly how long to cook them as tasting them is the most accurate timer, but it was around 3 minutes. Then we drain them and they get quickly mixed with olive oil in a big bowl. Pasta made this way is called tonarelli.
What goes on them is pretty dependent on what vegetables are in season. During December and January it was zucchini and tomatoes or peas and prosciutto. The zucchini with tomatoes is steamed in a foil pocket with garlic and oregano and the peas are quickly boiled. She even makes a brilliant topping without cooking the tomatoes. They get diced and infused with fresh garlic and basil for an hour. One night it was Nameko mushrooms with shallots, and another we splurged on a white truffle from Italy. Always topped with a heap of freshly grated parmigiano.
But I was waiting for the sauce. It had been a whole year. The thing is when she thinks about making homemade sauce, she doesn’t think about tomatoes from a can. She thinks first about growing the tomatoes in her garden. Then she thinks about freezing them down and throwing them into her suitcase and traveling the 2000 miles to LA with them.
Not only does she come with her own tomatoes to make fresh sauce, but she arrives with two different types of tomatoes. She always saves the chocolate tomatoes, otherwise known to the rest of the world as black tomatoes, for me, and this holiday she showed up with her homegrown super beef tomatoes which supposedly are the best for Italian sauce. Neither is possibly better than the other especially when you wait all year just to have one.
Me, I am not a cook. It is embarrassing that my mother brings an overweight suitcase containing edible ingredients (like my French friends bringing suitcases filled with fragrant cheese and wine to Norway as if we dialed 911 just for food) all the way from Chicago to California to cook for her grown children. But when you see what she does and how it tastes, there isn’t much to do but stand back and wait to be told when it is time to wash the dishes.
Each meal was organized more or less like a real restaurant meal. Primo piatto, secondo, insalata, and dessert which was generally just fruit. This year there was a a new dessert some nights, the 100 year old dessert, which was century old traditional balsamic vinegar dripped onto vanilla ice cream and strawberries.
At some point during the 30 days, you would expect the menu to begin to degenerate. But this never happened. We had it all. Duck, venison, beef, pork, chicken, pheasant…even a Sicilian dish. Even the days we had hamburgers were great. And don’t get me started on leftovers. I can’t think of a month in my adult life where the meals have been consecutively so good. I feel pretty confident that we ate better than anyone else in the entire LA area over the holiday season.
She used everything in her bag of tricks up to and including the last night: weinerschnitzel made with homemade breadcrumbs.
I guess the real thing about the pasta is that we sit around the table each night much like we did when we were a family together back in Chicago. Everyone makes a contribution-even I am important on the days we made pasta. We talked a lot about making pasta and what we were eating and which market we would go to next. Almost like when we were growing up, making jokes about things that had happened often while traveling, and missing those of us no longer with us. Those stories are told with a moment of pause, and you remember that now the stories are no longer new.
The unfortunate part of the 30 days is that I did not spend enough time watching over her shoulder and keeping a record of her magic. Although I have to say that the one major secret is the quality of the ingredients. We did not really exchange much in the way of gifts this year as it was only three of us, but I think this was my gift to my mother…making the pasta that she no longer makes for herself and well of course being there.
©2016 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com