I’ve always felt that the sign of a really good cook is their ability to make a delicious meal out of whatever items they have on hand; my late mother-in-law, Emma, worked that very magic in her kitchen. You could stop by, anytime, and in a flash, you would be enjoying a marvelous feast.
Being Italian, she had little twists that she put into her meals that were so satisfying, and filling. Taking her shopping, on the other hand, could test the boundaries of ones patience; my oldest daughter Jen can attest to that fact. Never was there just one stop for groceries, Emma had separate stores for her meat, her cold cuts, vegetables and bread, much to the frustration of Jen who was the only one out of Emma’s grandchildren who religiously chauffeured her grandmother around, week after week, including a Saturday stop at the hair salon.
The one trip we all loved to make was down to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx area of New York; a yearly pilgrimage just before Easter when this famous shopping area is at its best and…crowded! Hanging in the windows of various butcher shops are baby lambs and goats (don’t go “ewwww”…it’s an Italian thing to have both at Easter) and merchants are always happy to feed you, giving samples of their shop specialties to lure you into spending money. But, even there, my mother-in-law still had her favorite stores that we followed her in and out of, holding shopping bags full of Sausage, Cheeses, Pasta, Breads, Easter Chocolates, Sfogliatelle, Cannoli and Napoleons from Artuso Pastry, our last stop as we struggled with bulging packages, making our way back to the car.
Everything I first learned to cook was from my book collection but, thanks to Emma, I developed a passion for creating meals as she did without the dependence on the written word or even measuring. A little of this, a lot of that and, “don’t forget the Basil” were important ingredients to almost every meal. I can still see her in the kitchen, slicing a huge loaf of round, crusty Italian bread while holding it under one arm. When my husband was little, he remembers his father making trips to a local store to buy “Pot Cheese” (fresh Ricotta), packed in tall metal containers covered with cellophane and a rubber band that held the overflowing cheese from spilling down the sides; cheese so fresh that its middle would be almost buttery and perfect to spread over thick slices of bread with some grape jelly added. Simple foods, incredible pleasures.
One of her seven sisters, Gilda, lived nearby and she was the baker of the family, making a fabulous Strawberry Spongecake drenched in a mouth-watering whipped cream for special occasions, a recipe I have still. Aunt Gilda once taught me to make a regional pasta, called Garganelli, that she rolled on sticks brought from Italy. Once rolled, the sticks were carefully removed and the pasta gently cut into smaller pieces, allowed to rest, then quickly cooked to be served with an amazing sauce.
Each year, on Holy Saturday, my mother-in-law would make her Frittata; a basic dish with Asparagus, Sausage meat, Eggs and Fresh Basket Cheese; this meal was a tradition after fasting on Good Friday. It’s a very simple, easy to make dish, done in one large saute`pan.
Basket Cheese can be found in most good Italian delicatessens; this soft, almost bland, cheese is generally made around Easter although it periodically appears at other times of the year; it is named simply after the container it is put in to drain and ripen. Most basket cheese is eaten fresh, soft and unsalted, but you can also salt it lightly and let it set for a longer time to obtain a firmer cheese. It’s delicious eaten with just a drop of Olive Oil, a sprinkling of Garlic Salt and a slice of Tomato!
To serve four, you will need:
1 Basket Cheese
1 Pound Fresh Asparagus
1 Pound Sweet Sausage
1 Tablespoon Chopped Garlic
Salt to taste