A Family Affair
May 21, 2017
Growing up in an Italian household, so much of my life revolved around food – making it, eating it… even setting aside special times of the year for it (I’m talking about you, Seven Fish dinner). While other kids I knew took vacations or did activities together as a family, we took trips to check out places where you could get an old-fashioned chocolate-cherry Coke or that perfect bowl of clam chowder; when we went to the beach, the first place we always went was the diner that looked like someone had yanked it and its delicious burgers out of the 1950s. And the same restaurant and custard stand my parents had been going to for excellent gnocchi and banana splits that floated on air were the same ones that I’ve been going to since I could eat solid food. Call it nostalgia, call it a unique childhood, call it Pittsburgh tradition… I call it a lot of fun.
I’m Sicilian, Abruzzese, Spanish, and French on my mom’s side, and Calabrese and German on my dad’s side, which means I’ve got access to a lot of diverse and amazing flavours and opportunities for exploring different dishes and different memories. This week’s post was especially fun for me, because it gave me a chance to revisit many of the foods I grew up with and replicate some of the recipes I’d seen captured in my grandmother’s writing and made by my mom so many times before. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I’ve waited for my family’s Christmas Eve celebrations for the chance to bite into the familiar crunchy shell of my mom’s cannoli (and to snag some of my dad’s stuffed calamari), so I was especially excited to push the calendar ahead a few months and treat myself to an extra helping of these ricotta and chocolate-filled little tubes. I was even more excited that making them filled my house with the smell of cinnamon and fried dough normally present during the holidays.
Apart from being delicious (and nutritious, thanks to the ricotta and chocolate), cannoli (literally, “little tubes” in Italian) are sort of a primer in southern Italian history; popular legend asserts that the sweet treats were first introduced in Sicily around 1000 C.E. and were known by Arabs living in the region as qanawat. Originally reserved for the annual Carnevale festivities by native Sicilians, cannoli were intended to celebrate the fertility and life that returned with the arrival of each spring, and were typically reserved only for this time of year, though they eventually adapted to become synonymous with Sicilian pastries and comfort food, enjoyed throughout Italy year-round. The movement of Sicilians to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries further transformed this iconic dessert, introducing changes such as the use of mascarpone, cow’s milk ricotta in place of the sheep’s milk variety typically used in Sicily, or cinnamon, effectively allowing immigrants to bring a part of their heritage with them while blending old traditions with the new flavours of their adopted homes.
Because every family has that one recipe that can only be shared between family members (in my family’s case, maybe more than one?), I’ll only be including a photo of my mom’s cannoli in their finished form (sorry):
Another food I typically think of as “comfort food” is zuppa di ceci (zoo-pah dee che-chee), or chick pea soup. Like me, this hearty soup has roots in the Tuscany and Abruzzo regions of Italy and is typically served during the winter, which makes it perfect comfort food. Traditionally, this soup may include salt cod, artichokes, or chestnuts, in addition to chick peas; however, the version of chick pea soup I grew up with is delicious, simple to make, and, best of all, budget-friendly.
Here’s how to make the soup that’s as pretty to eat as it is to say:
- 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. red pepper seeds (to taste)
- 5 (15 oz.) cans chick peas (with broth)
- 1 (15 oz.) can diced tomatoes (with juice)
- 1 (32 oz.) container chicken stock
- 1/4 cup carrots, finely diced
- 6 tsp. chicken base + 6 cups water
- 1 tsp. salt (to taste)
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 1 heavy tbsp. basil
- 1 tsp. pepper (to taste)
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- OPTIONAL: Pre-cooked tiny beef/chicken meatballs, small, pre-cooked chicken chunks, or small ditalini pasta (cooked separately and added in after soup is ready to serve)
For a vegetarian-friendly approach, substitute the chicken broth and chicken base/water combination for 2 (32 oz.) containers vegetable stock and adjust spices accordingly.
- Sautee onions in olive oil (enough to lightly coat bottom of pot) in medium-large pot until translucent.
- Add all other ingredients to pot once onions are finished. If you decide to add meatballs or chunks of chicken to the soup, add them in at this point.
- Cook on medium-high heat for 45-60 minutes.
- Remove from heat. If desired, boil water to prepare ditalini and serve soup with ditalini and grated Pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese.
Fun fact: The sonnet, commonly associated with Shakespeare, was actually invented in Sicily in the 13th century by Giacoma da Lentini and later made famous by poets such as Petrarca and Dante Aligheri. Italy is also home to over 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the most of any country in the world.
Do you have a food you consider to be “comfort food”? Share it with us by posting a comment below – your favourite dish could be the next one featured on this blog!