These little humble cloves of garlic make me so happy! A metaphor for endurance, they survive our harsh winters, all by themselves in the garden until one unsuspecting spring day, their green little tips begin to poke through the ground. They are among the first to say hello as they quietly proclaim that summer is just around the corner. Today, my husband and I tucked about 100 away for a long winter sleep and I’m the one to dream about the time we meet again. Check out my YouTube channel for how to plant your own garlic! So easy! https://youtu.be/ZcefRCxWsbo
Without ever having to explain with words, my parents taught me that good food begins with fresh and simple ingredients. Their message was loud and clear everywhere I looked. While my friends had pools and sandboxes in their backyards, my childhood backyard featured an impeccable garden showcasing 5-foot tomato plants with rows of shiny purple eggplants and vibrant green peppers. The zucchini plants with their sunny yellow blossoms hid behind the forest of string beans that grew so tall that my mom climbed a ladder to pick them. Fragrant basil and dark green parsley lined the edges of the garden and sprawling cucumber plants thrived in the back. Bouquets of swiss chard and escarole with their lush green leaves claimed their own little neighbourhood. And of course, we had a fig tree growing in our front yard, right beside the roses, snapdragons, and free-growing parsley.
Many of my childhood memories centre around food. I remember walking home from school and smelling my mother’s mouthwatering tomato sauce wafting from our kitchen window from blocks away. I learned that soups always began with meat bones or even just vegetables but never from a dried powdery bouillon cube. Bread crumbs came from day-old bread and nuts were purchased in the shell. In my childhood house, there was neither butter nor shortening but my mom made the best cookies and cakes with real lemon juice and Sambuca liqueur. My morning breakfast consisted of sweetened hot milk and a splash of espresso… perfect to dunk one of the many different homemade traditional Donnicese baked goods. Lightly sweetened yeast doughs like fresine or taralli or soft cookies like pastette or filuni rotated throughout the month’s menu. Celebrations featured a bounty of tastes, textures, smells, and colour! Family picnics included steamy hot lasagna for lunch and thick juicy steaks for the dinner BBQ. Even funerals presented opportunities for food to unite and comfort.
While the outdoor garden signalled my parents’ passions, the inside of our home revealed a secret room, literally full of the fruits of their labour. Our cantina boasted a rainbow of colours! Jars of golden peaches bathing in their own juices and sweet syrup sat beside the tidy rows of fire-truck red canned tomatoes. Jars of pickled cucumbers, brined olives, and roasted red peppers were neatly arranged on the shelves my dad built. And depending on the time of year, you had to carefully weave through the freshly curing meats hanging from the ceiling to access these jars so as to not get hit in the head. Salsiccie, soppressate, capocolli, and prosciutti were lovingly and tenderly cared for during the winter months and added a distinct scent in the air. Bunches of little cherry-like tomatoes, cradled by a weave of butcher’s twine, were strategically hung by the cantina window so that even in December, a fresh garden tomato salad was just steps away. If the refrigerator ever seemed bare, it contrasted with the feast of cherished delectable charcuterie foods exploding in the cantina! No wonder my mom could whip up a rich and deeply satisfying meal at any time!
So you see, food really was central to everything in my childhood. It’s no surprise that it continues to keep me deeply rooted today, just like how that fig tree kept my parents tied to their beloved Italia. It didn’t matter that we were the only family that featured a fig tree in our front yard. In fact, I don’t even remember thinking that it was odd, even after my dad built its own winterized insulated extension on the house. It’s that kind of loyalty and pride that guided my parents to maintain their traditions and customs, including being able to pick fresh figs from their own tree that grew in our front yard.
As Marisa Mariella can attest, for anyone with Italian friends, introductory greetings often begin with “Did you eat?” rather than “How are you?” But for Mariella, spending time in the kitchen is about more than feeding the body. Through “Marisa’s Easy Kitchen,” currently airing on Cable 14, Mariella combines her passions for teaching and cooking, along with mental health and wellness. A former teacher with more than 20 years of experience in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, Mariella is also vice-chair of the Suicide Prevention Community Council of Hamilton.
She has witnessed the social and mental health benefits of cooking, including during her time at Cathedral High School, where she ran a cooking club for newcomers. Students bonded over piping-hot pizzas and language barriers were broken over a shared love of food. “For me, cooking has always been a part of my life,” said Mariella. “As a teacher, any opportunity I could create or find, I would incorporate food and cooking.” During a medical leave from work, one of Mariella’s wellness strategies was to spend more time in the kitchen. “Although cooking has always been a part of whatever I’ve been doing, either at school or at home, this time it added a very interesting, therapeutic approach and feel to cooking,” she said. During the pandemic, Mariella started livestreaming cooking classes for the Donnici Social Club. More recently, she submitted a proposal to Cable 14 and “Marisa’s Easy Kitchen” began production in 2020, with filming taking place at Mariella’s Stoney Creek home kitchen. Season 2 is currently airing. Mariella helps to produce the shows under the tutelage of Cable 14 producers Brendan Nickolau and Jeff Patterson. With easy-to-follow recipes designed for home cooks, Mariella encourages viewers to be mindful of their approach, to respect the ingredients and to reconnect with childhood memories and flavours. Many of her recipes, like her escarole and bean soup, are inspired or influenced by her mother or mother-in-law. Mariella credits her family matriarchs for teaching her respect for simplicity and freshness. “That’s really the basis for all my recipes — they have to be simple and mouth-watering. Plus, everything tastes better when you share it with someone,” she said. As an educator and parent, Mariella said it’s important to get children involved in the kitchen. “That teachable moment is more than just the food that you’re making. It’s that special bonding time. It’s helping them to recognize that there are life skills you can learn by cooking.” “Marisa’s Easy Kitchen” is sponsored by Stoney Creek’s Nardini Specialities and features imported products from the store, like aged balsamic vinegar, Italian extra-virgin olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Nardini grocery manager Carlo Gambale was also a recent guest on the show. Mariella also shows viewers tips to take their creations to the next level, like using ice cubes in the bottom of the oven for perfectly crusted baguettes. Other featured recipes have included salted cod with potatoes, focaccia, cornbread baked on the grill and ribs. Mariella has helped viewers save money by making soup from scratch with homemade chicken broth or vegetable broth made from vegetable scraps. Simple dessert recipes, like traditional Italian ciambellone cake, have also resonated with viewers. “I think the idea of it being simple, combined with quality, fresh ingredients, is a combination that works,” said Mariella. A Christmas episode from last year, set to air again this December, features an oven-roasted lamb recipe, a favourite dish from Mariella’s parents’ hometown of Donnici in southern Italy. Mariella is launching a new website, marisamariella.com, and plans to offer online cooking sessions in the future. She has an official YouTube Channel and Instagram account. For “Marisa’s Easy Kitchen” show times or livestream details, see Cable14.com.
Making cullurielli brings me back to simpler days when my mom and dad spent the day preparing all sorts of traditional Christmas delicacies, just in time to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The distinct deep-fried aroma signalled to my sister and I that their baking would conclude with heaping bowls of savoury potato-based fritters for dinner. Served with homemade soppressata, salty anchovy fillets, and chunks of Friulano cheese, the golden, airy, and slightly chewy doughnut-shaped bread was dipped in chunky tomato sauce that boasted the taste of my parents’ summer garden.
Interestingly, with the recent popular fascination for charcuterie boards, I now realize we had been enjoying a rustic version of them since childhood, with cullurielli as the central attraction at Christmas time. Deeply grateful to my parents, this tradition continued long enough for all six grandchildren to relish the tastes, sounds, and scents of this meal with their adoring nonni. Like many Italian doughs, it is important to get the right texture. Struck by my mom’s ability to whip up amazing yeast doughs without a measuring cup in sight, I remember that she would mutter “quanto basta.” This common Italian “just enough” mantra guides bakers into developing a relationship with the dough, knowing when to add more water, when to hold off on the flour, and when to stop kneading. Her words were meant to guide me through a mindful experience with the transformation of the dough, from shaggy to sticky to tacky and smooth. Therapeutic and gratifying, making cullurielli is also a great way to invite children into the kitchen. Even now, the announcement of cullurielli for dinner triggers big smiles and hearty appetites from my adult children. How many will they eat? Hmmm….Quanto basta!
Escarole and Bean Soup (Minestra di scarola e fagiolo)
Unfamiliar with escarole? Many Italians have probably been harvesting these luscious leafy greens all month! While I haven’t planted any, I am always grateful for my sister’s thoughtfulness when she delivers bunches so fresh that the moist dirt is still clinging to the outer leaves. A member of the chicory family, escarole’s distinct bitterness is tamed with proper cooking. Unlike most other greens used in soups, this nutritional endive maintains its rainbow of green hues and lends a delicate flavour to this deeply satisfying soup. While other ingredients can be added, my version varies only slightly from the authentic Donnicese recipe from my mom. I attribute my addition of garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano to my mother-in-law’s Capursese influence! I know my mother would prefer her authentic version with only a few ingredients, but this is definitely a recipe where too many cooks do not spoil the soup.
One of my best friends is soup. I don’t need any special occasion to call on this friend, but I have to admit that there are days where nothing soothes and uplifts me more than a steaming bowl of homemade chicken soup! Its colourful medley of nutritious vegetables and hearty chunks of succulent meat are perfectly balanced with the tender noodles and flavourful broth. I am not trying to suggest that soup fixes everything, but it sure does help! With the overindulgence of the Christmas season and the first real blast of wintery weather, it’s no wonder January is National Soup Month.
While the romantic tradition of Valentine’s Day has historic roots, I’d like to propose that this year, we focus on self-love as a means of restoring a healthy relationship with ourselves … our true selves … vulnerabilities and all. If you think that self-love feeds selfishness and arrogance, I invite you to confront your attitude by reflecting on your thoughts and feelings about your self-worth. Are you not equally deserving of receiving love? If this concept is still difficult to accept, consider the gentleness and compassion you extend generously and without reserve to a friend, a parent, a sibling, co-worker, or a neighbour. Avoid the pressure and consumerism of a traditional Valentine’s Day.
With each stage of the process, like the liberal sharing of liqueurs, the long debates about the right amount of spice, the prized taste testing for the salt of a seared pork patty, the occasional colourful language when a casing bursts, and the waves of contagious laughter that fill the air, all the nostalgic memories of childhood surface to nurture a bond between each of us and cement the connection to a culture that respects food for its power to unite.
I grew up in a traditional Italian home where food was more than just something you ate. My mom and dad prioritized wholesome food because that’s how they grew up in Donnici, a picturesque and charming little gem in Calabria. With the freshest of ingredients and the simplest of techniques, they prepared meals that would rival the best restaurants. Mamma made it look so easy! One minute, the kitchen counter would be bare and the next minute, she’d have these amazing aromas filling the air and a rainbow of colours delighting the eye! And presto, in a short time, she’d have a mouthwatering dinner on the table, a primo and secondo, to boot. While she often summoned me to help in the kitchen, I admit that I did the bare minimum. I’d strain the tomatoes to make passata, peel potatoes for the minestrone, pick the green beans from the garden, hold the beaters while she added the flour to the crostata. I am embarrassed to say that I usually obliged begrudgingly. Oh, if only I could do it all over again!
I think the only cooking I did was follow the instructions for an occasional boxed cake mix or add sliced carrots to dry soup mix! If you’re wondering how those two items even ended up our pantry in the first place, it was probably because I whined long enough for my parents to buy them. Another remorseful moment. But as I matured and ventured on my own, my palate expected quality and my wallet demanded a tight budget. So, I started cooking and baking. And that’s when I felt like I was growing up! Cooking and baking became perfect metaphors for life! Like when you spill flour all over the floor, you have to do a good job cleaning it up or someone may slip and fall. Life lesson – cleaning up after yourself is a way of showing care for others. Or how about when you are so distracted that you forget about the cookies in the oven? The life lesson is about mindfulness and how important it is to attend to the task at hand for the best success. Or thinking that no one will notice the burnt garlic in the sauce? That harsh life lesson highlights that when you make a mistake, sometimes, you just have to start over, no matter how insignificant you think your mistake is. In fact, I bet most of life’s important lessons can be taught in the kitchen! That’s probably why mamma tried so hard to engage me in the kitchen as a child and teen! Not only would I have learned some critical life skills at a younger age but I would have seen firsthand how virtues like patience, orderliness, forgiveness, gratitude, flexibility, and more naturally spill into daily life. And that would have been one mess that I wouldn’t have had to clean up!
Motivated by a healthier perspective, I’ve created my own version that uses baking instead of frying, ground chicken instead of red meat, and gluten-free breadcrumbs. The end result is a melt-in-your-mouth meaty “bocconcino” with an irresistible balance of flavours. Perfect to add to your homemade tomato sauce or eaten “in bianco” with a fresh garden salad, I am happy to report that my grown-up “polpettini” love them, too!
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said the romantic Romeo about his Juliet but it is also true for this traditional Italian recipe! Depending on the region, Italians call this classic dessert a crostata or pizza! Let’s add tart or pie to the list, too! Any way you call it, this simple shortcrust pastry features a creamy, lightly sweetened filling of ricotta. Scented with lemon zest and studded with bittersweet chocolate, this typical dessert in Puglia is often called “la pizza di Pasqua” because it graces every Easter celebration. Thankfully, my beautiful Apulian mother-in-law thinks it is much too delicious to reserve only for Easter. I’m sure Romeo would have agreed.
As signs of spring lift our spirits, so can a colourful, light, and fresh-tasting meal like this pasta dish. Bursting with a variety of complementing flavours and textures, pasta primavera comes together so quickly. Whether you are new to the kitchen or experienced, let the rhythm of the chopping and slicing soothe the mind and let the colours ignite your creativity. Get the water boiling because dinner will be ready in about 15 minutes.