Happy birthday, Nonna !

Nonna Domenica just turned 75!

Over the weekend, we were in Montreal to celebrate our Nonna’s 75th birthday. Surrounded by her children, grand children and even her first great-grandson, it was a great moment to reflect on her journey from Campobasso, Italy to Montreal, Canada. Things have sure changed from the moment she set foot here as a teenager in 1950s. Throughout the years, Nonna worked hard to support her family and provide them the best life possible.

Her cooking brought and still brings a smile to everyone’s face. We all laugh when she insists on offering seconds although her first generous portion of pasta and meatballs is more than enough. My grandmother speaks both Italian and French. Even though we both communicate in French (I unfortunately don’t know any Italian), it always felt as though certain things were lost in translation on both ends.

Thankfully, it seems as thought the language barrier has dissipated somewhat, especially since I’ve grown increasingly curious about her culinary secrets. I visited her on my own about two summers ago. I feel as though this was the stepping-stone that has brought us closer.

“Take a look!”

On that day, Nonna had taken great pride in showing me pretty much every single herb, flower, fruit or vegetable growing the backyard of her Rivière-des-Prairies home. That yard is quite the scene. Every square foot is put to use: loads of oregano plants by the patio, chard, onion and tomato plants in the sunny spot and grapes growing on the car port. There were even beanstalks planted in a narrow space behind the shed.

The cold room is just as impressive. Inside, you’ll find some vegetables pickling, wine aging, cheese and sausage drying. My grandmother’s face lit up as she carefully showed the fruit of her and her partner’s labour. It was just great.

I must admit that I’m completely fascinated by the “art” of approximation of ingredients that she has mastered in many of her dishes. I’ve written about it in a previous post on her pasta sauce. With that being said, I now give her a call for advice, whenever I’m intrigued about something in the kitchen.

I’m looking forward to many more visits in Nonna’s garden and words of culinary wisdom.

Grazie Mille! Tanti auguri, Nonna!

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Adventures in sauce: a family recipe put to the test

Tomatoes

While scrolling through what was written on The Tarnished Spoon over the summer, one can notice my fascination for tomatoes – more specifically the ones growing on our deck. The heirloom cherry tomato harvest provided us a tasty addition to many dishes.

Whether at the farmer’s market or walking through the produce section at the   grocery store, the Ontario Fruit baskets have been a common sight. I must admit that I’ve been drawn to tomato bushels and baskets. They were beckoning, wanting be to taken home. Without much hesitation, I did with the firm intention of tackling a culinary challenge; hence this tomato-centric post.

Playing with tradition

Nonna’s sauce, ready to serve!

My Italian roots were showing for this recipe. Pasta and homemade tomato sauce has been a staple at home since as early as I can remember. Over the years, I have been exposed to two recipes mores specifically: my mother’s and my Nonna’s. Both are equally delicious. Since moving out, I’ve made my mother’s meat and vegetable sauce on a regular basis. However, I had never attempted my Nonna’s tomato and meatballs. It felt only natural to step out of my comfort zone and try to make Nonna proud.

I quickly called my grandmother for some insight and wisdom on getting the job done. Over the phone, I was expecting specific herbs and quantities, but ended up getting many words of encouragement and a great deal of approximations.

A couple of snippets of our conversation while discussing the oh-so empirical science of meatballs:

Me: What meat do you use?
Nonna: You can use beef. You can use veal or pork too.
Me: Is there one that is better?
Nonna: No, not really. Use whatever you have at hand!
Me: What else do you put in there?
Nonna: Some garlic, salt, pepper, eggs… about 3, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.
Me: How much breadcrumbs?
Nonna: You’ll see… You’ll know how much you need.
Me: Ok…

After her instructions, I went directly to the kitchen. Time for some adventures in sauce.

Make sur you add in a couple of eggs and some breadcrumbs, you’ll se how much.

The recipe

*Disclaimer: all quantities and times are given in Nonna speak in other words, approximate quantities and times

Makes about two to three batches of sauce

Sauce

  •  20 to 25 medium sized tomatoes or more;
  • About 3 or 4 cloves of garlic;
  • An onion;
  • Cayenne pepper (flakes) or whole fresh cayenne pepper;
  • Basil;
  • Tomato paste;
  • Salt;
  • Pepper;
  • Celery stalks;
  • Bay leaves.

Meatballs

  • Approximately 2 pounds of ground meat (beef, veal, pork… whichever meat you want, essentially);
  • Garlic;
  • Salt;
  • Pepper;
  • Grated parmesan cheese;
  • 3 or 4 eggs;
  • Breadcrumbs (you’ll know how much!).

Method

  • Start off by peeling the skin off the tomatoes by making a “X” incision at the bottom end and plunging the tomato in boiling water for a couple of seconds. Cool tomato in ice water and peel.
  • Remove seeds from tomatoes by halving them. All Recipes.com offers a comprehensive step-by-step on how to do this.
  • Dice tomatoes, chop up garlic, mix in tomato paste, add cayenne pepper, celery stalks basil, bay leaves salt and pepper and simmer for couple of hours on medium-low heat.
  • Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix in the ground meat, garlic, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese.
  • Mix in the eggs and breadcrumbs to the meat.
  • Form meatballs that are about 2 inches in diameter
  • Fill the bottom of a skillet with vegetable oil and brown the meatballs for about 5 to 7 minutes
  • Plunge the meatballs into the tomato sauce while it keeps simmering.
  • Make the sauce and meatballs simmer for anywhere between 2 and 4 hours on low heat while making sure to stir the pot every now and then.
  • When ready, remove bay leaves and celery stalks from the sauce
  • Serve on the pasta of your choice.

Some final thoughts

Nonna’s sauce, ready to serve.

I was quite nervous about replicating my Nonna’s recipe, not knowing how it would turn out. I am pleased to say that my adventure in sauce was a success. The sauce tasted and looked great. I was actually quite surprised that it actually tasted just like my grandmother’s recipe. Maybe there is some certainty in approximate family recipes!

How do you go about making tomato sauce?