If you didn’t already know, I’m half Italian from my Dad’s side and I’m half British from my Mom’s side. “British, really?” you ask. I know, it’s hard to believe because I don’t resemble an Englishwoman in the least since I have good teeth and nice hair. Plus, I know how to cook, and the British don’t. Well, actually most of them don’t, but my Mom did. Just like my Dad, and myself, and my sister, she was a fantastic cook, and I believe it was because of her passion of food, and her love affair with eating it. If you have a love affair with food, most of the time, you become a fantastic cook, or a fantastic eater. She was both. Because of my Mom’s time spent in Italy with my Dad, she mostly adopted the Italian way of cooking: by using the freshest ingredients, prepared simply, so each ingredient could stand out. Italian cooking is genius in it’s simplicity, but my Mom managed to take it to another level; with her passion and insight of food and subtle flavors, she created a style of cooking all her own.
So we were all fantastic cooks, my family and I, and we all had our love affairs with cooking and eating food. There is no doubt that I often dream of my Dad’s spinach gnocchi or mushroom risotto, or the time in Italy when he made me rabbit for the first time, which he marinated with giant sprigs of rosemary, lemons halves and fragrant garlic cloves to remove some of the gaminess, and when he cooked it, all of those flavors concentrated in the pan with the perfectly browned, sweet rabbit meat. It was definitely a memorable dish. But after my parent’s divorce, I spent most of my time with my Mom, so it is her repertoire of dishes that I go to the most readily. There are countless dishes my Mom made that were memorable and it would take weeks to write about all of them. But there is one in particular that I’ll always remember, and can boldly say is my favorite; her homemade Swiss Chard Lasagna. It was the best dish I’ve ever had the pleasure of sinking my perfect teeth into, and it is the one to which all others should be compared.
To make it, she used ingredients that she grew from her own garden she so carefully tended to one perfect California summer. She handmade the lasagna noodles, incorporating the swiss chard into the dough and turning out long, bright green sheets of fresh pasta using the hand-crank pasta maker she had. Then she made a spectacular sauce from her best tomatoes, simmering it on the stove until it was a sweet, dense, tomato-ey delight! She layered the bright green lasagna noodles with ladles of sweet, red sauce and creamy white ricotta cheese, sprinkled Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on the top, then carefully put it in the oven to bake. When it came out, we both stared at it with awe for a few moments, watching it bubble in the pan. The vibrant colors of red, green and white were a feast for the eyes! As we cut it with our forks, the ricotta and tomato melted out onto our plates, and as we ate it, the tender pasta melted in our mouths. It was creamy, salty, sweet and tender. So simple, yet so flavorful, so spectacular! I knew she was proud of her accomplishment and she deserved a gold medal for it. We finished the entire dish in one day.
Since she was in her 80s, my Mom was no longer a fantastic cook but she was still a fantastic eater, which was evident when we were all dining together recently: myself, my sister, my Mom and her kind neighbor, and my Mom ate my sister’s Chicken Parmigiano with gusto, finishing the entire plate, and even having dessert! We were all amazed at how much she ate that night and it was good to see her with a healthy appetite because her health had been in decline the past few months. It was a good memory to have of her, all of us dining together at her table, with easy conversation flowing and good food to enjoy. It reminded me of all the times we spent together in her kitchen, cooking and eating.
Now every time I sit down to eat a dish I’ve prepared, I will imagine her sitting across the table from me, and I’ll say to her “You know, my dish is pretty good, but it’s not as good as yours Mom.”
She will be greatly missed.