Cooking like a Peasant

October 3, 2017

Throughout my sojourn in Italy, I have been doing some cooking. I feel more inspired to use my little kitchen stove than I did in any other kitchens I have owned. There is something about being here that changed my attitude about cooking.

When I first settled into my apartamento, I think I spent the first few days on my balcony, watching the sun set and peeking at my tiny view of the sea.

I was nervous about using my little kitchen. I had to light the burner. I hadn’t packed a cookbook. Could I actually shop for ingredients that I could use?

Yes, I could shop.

There is something very centering about cooking. It is a creative adventure for me. I am not using cookbooks. I did not bring any with me. I do have an e-book by my friend, Judy Witts Franchini,  Divina Cucina’s Recipes, Secrets from my Tuscan Kitchen.  I read it and she has excellent recipes that are genuine and easy to follow.  I used her recipe for my first Polenta.

I had eaten it but had never made it before this first attempt. Now it is a staple in my mostly Gluten Free food lifestyle.

My bisnonna, my great-grandmother, Orphelia Palumbo Del Fiacco, taught me some things about cooking. What I remember the most is how she taught me to make zuppa, soup. In her broken English-Italiano, she said she would put the chicken in the pot and cover it with water. Throw in some carrots, celery and onion to help flavor it. Add sale, pepe, pressemolo, e basilico (Salt, pepper, parsley and basil). Cook it until the meat fell off the bone. Take everything out. Cut up the meat and add it back in. Then add some macaroni. That was her recipe. That is what she did. She measured it with her hands. She used the same pot every time. She may have varied what she did with it after the stock was done, but that is how you make zuppa di pollo, chicken soup. I got her pot when she passed away. But it is now gone and my pot in my rental apartment is smaller. Yet, every time I make soup, I think of her. I cover the chicken with water, etc.

She almost always used pastina, tiny dots of pasta. I cannot find those in the Gluten Free variety and use whatever I have on hand. She would say this big pasta was too much. It is like we are talking when I am making to soup. I feel her here with me, in the country where she was born. I cherish those moments.

My mom, Muriel, loved to cook. I grew up watching and helping her can tomatoes and make the meat sauce every week. I recall asking her for her recipe and she laughed.

“What recipe?” she said, and laughed some more. One day I went home to help her make the sauce. As she picked up the spices to toss into her giant, witch’s brew-style pot, I stuck my hands below hers and measured every spice. I wrote it all down, exactly as she did it. Yet I could never make it like hers. It was just not quite the same.

Here, I usually make mine meatless, something my mother never did. I do try to spice it the way she always did, and I feel her guiding my hands as I toss in the basil, fresh or dried, the parsley, the garlic plus the salt and pepper. I have discovered the flavor of Sicilian Oregano and I love the scent as it cooks in the pot of tomatoes. I can hear my mother saying, “Gramma never used oregano. What are you doing?” and I hear her laughing again. She had the greatest laugh.

Note the splatter all over the stove. Now I hear mia nonna Amelia Del Fiacco Ruscitti Rossi (Long name, yes?) who we called Mamma, scolding me for messing up the stove. She was the baker, the chef di pasticceria, in the family and the neat freak too. I miss her so much. I miss her cookies, and her meals and her eccentric personality. I feel her here when I look at that mess I always make on the stove. I wish she could clean it for me. I wish she was just there with me as I experiment with meals.

Like many forms of Risotto.

And tasty salads. I can envision her scrubbing down my kitchen and handing me a toothbrush to clean the tiny crevasses, just as she did when I was young. Miss you, Mamma.

Mamma was the person who took care of me when I was ill. My mother had her hands full with my other five siblings. Mamma was there to be with me when I was in hospital or sick at home. Now, in the last two weeks back in my home in Italy, I have wished for her to help me as I hobble around on my broken foot. I miss my great-grandmother counting the ravioli she made. I miss my mother laughing and cooking up a storm.

So, I cook. I create and I do not measure.

Zuppa di pollo con riso e Parmigiano Reggiano.

Penne e sugo.

Sugo con peperoni gialli, fungi misti, basilico, pressemolo, aglio, oregano, sale e pepe.

The vegetables sauteed in Extra Virgin Olive Oil before putting them in the Sugo.


And I splash everywhere, even on my air cast boot. Oh, how I wish Mamma was here. I guess she is here with me, all of them are. I would not even be here if they hadn’t had their strong influence on me. My entire Italo-American family is here with me and I am here because of them. I feel them all when I cook like the peasant family I came from. I feel them when I eat the concoctions made with what is in my kitchen or what was on sale this week. Thank you for all your inspiration.

Time for dinner. What will I cook tonight? Wish you were in Italy with me. Ci vediamo presto. See you soon.

Ciao for now!

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