Monday, April 20, 2009

Family Recipes

Photo: My daughter eating a meringue in Florence

Do you keep a bookshelf in your kitchen? If you do, you might understand my problem. I suffer from an embarrassment of riches in the cookbook department. I love to read cookbooks the way some people love to read mysteries--I savor the list of ingredients, ponder the strategies proposed (to sift or not to sift?) and wonder how the finished dish will taste. In addition to shelves and shelves of cookbooks, I also subscribe to way too many cooking magazines, and heaven forbid I should toss out even one. My print subscriptions are augmented by recipes that come from emails and websites. So what exactly is my problem? How do I keep track of all my recipes? 

The short answer is that I don't. There are recipes that melt away from my repertoire without my notice, and there are recipes that I want to try that I can't locate in the blizzard of books and clippings and magazines that drift around my kitchen. If I'm lucky, I'll rediscover a cherished find when I flip through the pages of an old magazine or cookbook or when I look at a menu from a particularly memorable meal. It's hard to tell how many former favorite dishes have been lost forever.

The most vulnerable recipes are the dishes passed down from my great-grandmother. She came from Italy as a young bride, illiterate, so she did not have a chance to write down her recipes for posterity, and she died when I was only five. Before my grandmother died, my brothers and I were able to get her to prepare many of our favorites while we watched, taking notes on measurements and on the smells and textures. We wanted to preserve our food heritage and pass it on to our children and theirs. We each had a piece of that pie, but we never had a chance to put it all together.

Then, for one of my brother's weddings, I compiled a family cookbook. The presentation wasn't particularly special, just a computer print out, and it was far from complete, but with each recipe I included a brief story. Over the next ten or fifteen years, as we'd remember a favorite dish I would add it to the file. If someone discovered an error, I'd go back and make a change. Every few years, I printed out new copies and distributed them to my family. When we realized that the book did not include the recipes for the traditional seven fish dinner we always eat on Christmas Eve, I spent hours in consultation with my mother. How often did she change the water for the dried fish for the bacalla soup? How many pounds of flour did she use to make the crispelles, the lighter-than-air rustic fried bread? As we talked, I scribbled down as many details as possible, knowing that some day it will be my turn to cook this important meal myself. 

Last winter my daughter asked for an electronic copy of the family recipes. I was ecstatic! She was finally interested in cooking, my little girl who seems to be allergic to everything even vaguely related to kitchens and cooking. However, she had an even bigger surprise for me. With the assistance of her boyfriend, she took the humble family recipe book and turned it into a masterpiece. She scanned old photographs and sifted through the thousands of photos in her own electronic album to select the perfect pictures to illustrate the events and the food. She went through every recipe and made the format consistent throughout. Her boyfriend updated the index and helped with formatting. After days of work, she sent the updated file to Apple to produce a hard-cover volume of the family cookbook, and she gave a copy to my mother and to me for Mother's Day.

The story of the family cookbook didn't end there. Last summer, my mother took the entire family to Italy. We stayed in a bed and breakfast just outside Rome in Frascati, a charming hill town at the end of the metro line. It was the family reunion of a lifetime, and it gave us lots of time to eat, to drink, to share stories, to take pictures. Once again, my daughter went to work with her camera and her computer. For Christmas, she created a custom family cookbook for each of her uncles so they have a masterpiece to call their very own.

While this cookbook has not solved my problem of keeping track of all my recipes, it has ensured that my family will remember the dishes that mean the most to us. 

How do you organize your recipes? Let me know!

Here is my daughter's favorite family recipe. It's a comfort soup that you can whip up from pantry staples in under 20 minutes.

Pastina Soup
(We pronounce it pash-tin-a.)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, cut in two pieces
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ancini de pepe (tiny, peppercorn-shaped pasta)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup grated locatelli cheese
freshly ground black pepper
additional cheese for garnish

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Turn up the heat to high and add the water and salt. Allow the water to come to a full rolling boil. Reduce to a slow simmer for 5 minutes to allow the water to become redolent of garlic. Return to high heat. When the water comes to a full boil, add the ancini de pepe, and lower the heat to medium to prevent the water from boiling over. Cook for 9-11 minutes (it should be al dente). While the pasta is cooking, beat the egg and cheese together. When the pasta is al dente, remove the garlic and slowly whisk the egg/cheese mixture into the hot soup. Take the pot away from the heat, cover, and allow the soup to sit for a few minutes to allow the egg to finish cooking. Immediately ladle into two soup bowls, add a grind of pepper to taste and a touch of additional grated cheese.
Makes 2 servings

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