My Brilliant Mamma

      Since we are stuck at home, we have been watching the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. The show was created from Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. The story line is about two girlfriends and the difficulty they experienced as women living in the 1950’s in Naples, Italy. My Brilliant Friend is the name of Elena Ferrante’s first novel. The show is not only spoken in Italian, but also in the Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles. Some of the scenes were even filmed on the island of Ischia located in the Bay of Naples. My sister lives there now and is also the island where my mom and her family grew up. I have read the first of Elena Ferrante novels, and had started reading the second book which I could not bring myself to finish. For some reason I decided to force myself to watch the HBO series during this quarantine. I thought that listening to the Neapolitan dialect would bring me comfort. As I watched the series, I realized why I stopped reading Elena Ferrante’s books. Her books are painfully too familiar.

    My mom was born in 1936 and moved to the US in 1955. My Brilliant Friend series is also set in the 1950’s. Mamma told me so many stories during her upbringing. My mom was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father was away as a medic during the war, and afterwards he went away again in search of a better place for his family to live. The family struggled whenever he was away. As a young child my mom was forced to grow up fast and strong. Her mom desperately relied on her. Mamma had to do a lot of things that would seem way too much for a young child to do. But her mom had no choice while taking care of 6 younger children. I listened to my mom and her stories of all the things she had to do, I just could not fathom the gravity of the situation until I heard the desperation of my grandmother’s words.

     One day as my Nonna (grandmother) stirred sugar into a cup of espresso she, told me of a time when she went to speak to her priest before Nonno (grandfather) went away to Argentina in 1949. My Nonna was the holiest person I have ever known. Her whole life was guided through the Lord and the Holy Spirit. She went to church every day. I knew that faith got her out of the darkest moments of her life. That day over espresso, she recollected a dilemma she experienced in minced words that I could not quite understand. I leaned forward so I can fully comprehend what she was trying to tell me. Her face was cringed in pain and her voice stammered as she tried to reveal her secret. My Nonna did not speak any English and she told me this in the Neapolitan dialect. Although I am basically fluent in Italian, some of the words, she used I never heard of. With my eyes wide, my mouth agape and at full attention, I listened. She proceeded to tell me that during the time before Nonno left for Argentina she went to confession to ask the priest for guidance. But I did not get it! I just nodded to reassure her I was listening. To this day I still wonder what she was trying to tell me. I did not understand the words she used to tell me what the priest had said.  How can I understand? I cannot even imagine what it was like living during that time, in that place, under those circumstances?  All I can tell you is what I saw in front of me as Nonna closed her eyes and lifted her hands as if in reverence and said she found out she was pregnant with her only son, her 7th child as Nonno sailed off to Argentina.  Nonno met his only son 3 years later when he finally came back from Argentina.   

    My Nonna was so burdened with her husband away, a child on the way, and 6 other children to feed, that she had no one else to rely on but my mom. Nonna kept all her other children under close watch. They did not have the freedom that my mom had to freely move throughout the island. My mom’s siblings were not allowed to go anywhere. My grandmother was extremely strict with them. I grew up understanding that Nonna was protective and overbearing. I used to hear whispers that my mom, as a child, was arrogant and spoiled. I often wonder if Mama’s sisters could have been jealous of her. But as I am rethinking about it now, how could they have not felt that way about my mom. They watched my mom have the freedom that they wished they had.

      Because of this responsibility, my mom ended up developing a strong character. My grandmother needed her to be that way. Money was so tight, and the family was starving. The money my grandfather would send from Argentina was not enough for the 8 of them. My grandmother would say to my mom…Here is 2 lire and a shopping list. See what you can do. As challenging as it was, my mom would embrace the task. She became good at bartering with the market people to get as much as she could with the little money that she had. Mamma was proud to go back home with everything on the list and watch intently to see if she could erase the worry off my grandmother’s face. Mamma was industrious too! Mamma proudly told me of the time she had to travel to Forio, (a town on the other side of the island) to learn how to make baskets. Nonna gave her enough money to buy all the material, too! When she got back home, she taught her mom and her sisters to make the baskets too. They all worked hard to make baskets to sell to the tourists. Another time, while my mom was out and about the town, a tourist asked where she could find a laundress. Mamma piped up that her mom is a laundress! Mom’s quick thinking added another monetary opportunity to put food on the table. Mamma told me countless stories of how it was when her father was away.

  That is how my brilliant mamma became who she was. But just as much as my mom had let go of her childhood, my grandmother also had to let go of some of her motherly instincts for the family to survive.

   I think about those times now as we all struggle with this pandemic. How strong my mom and her family had to be to endure all those hardships back then. I am confident that we all can overcome this hardship at this time! After all it is in our genes to overcome!

Grilled Chicken Marinated with Mint Pesto

This dish is a family favorite!  I can remember my grandfather starting the grill.  He didn’t use charcoal just wood in a barbecue pit. The mint pesto was made with his own white wine vinegar which was way stronger than commercial vinegar.  He used it whole chicken or fish. My version is adapted to make it a quick meal on your stove top. Enjoy!

Ingredients

2 Boneless chicken Breast pounded so it the same thickness throughout

½ cup fresh mint leaves

¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup of white wine vinegar

½ tsp of salt

2 cloves of garlic

Procedure

  • Blend the mint leaves, EVOO, vinegar salt and garlic together until just about chopped. Not smooth though. Blend for a few seconds to get all the ingredients in a rough chopped look.
  •  Add the mint pesto to the chicken to marinate for a half hour.
  • Preheat a cast iron pan on high heat on the stove top.
  • Grill chicken in a cast iron pan. With heat set to medium. Flip to cook both sides. The length of time that it takes depends on the thickness of the pounded chicken. It could be anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes.
Grilling the Mint Chicken

Buon Appetito!

Bella Figura and Zucchini Flower Zeppole

I am so embarrassed that it has been so long since I have written a blog entry. Our only daughter is getting married and I have been preoccupied with making sure that everything is perfect because god forbid I make a “brutta figura”! But I ended up making a “brutta figura” with all of you by not keeping up with my blog posts! If you are Italian, you know exactly what I mean by “brutta figura”. For all the non-Italians read on as I explain in detail of this Italian phenomenon. And for all the Italians out there help me make a “bella figura” by giving me wedding planning advice.

While growing up in my big Italian family, my parents stressed to all of us the importance of always making a “bella figura” so our family looked good. We strived to make “una bella figura” versus “una brutta figura”). In literal translation brutta means ugly and bella means beautiful. Figura means figure as in body shape. Figuratively, these two phrases mean that Italians want to always make a good impression versus a bad impression. Let me give you an example. My first introduction to “brutta figura” was when we would go visit my extended Italian family. The hostess would welcome us into her home and lead us into a beautiful dining room set up with fine linens, china and would serve espresso, an assortment of desserts, and aperitifs.  This was her way of making “una bella figura”. (One time we went to a relative’s house in Brooklyn and we had to sit on plastic covered chairs that went crunch when we moved. I don’t know if this could be regarded as “bella figura”.) For us children, so as not to embarrass my parents and create “una brutta figura”, we were urged to partake of the coffee, desserts and even the aperitifs. Yes, as a child I was encouraged by the hostess to try the aperitifs along with everything else. Although I didn’t care for the aperitifs and the espresso to make “una bella figura” I had to try it. But now when I look back I should not have tried so hard with the Italian pastries. I realize now, this was the only drawback to this “bella figura”. All these good impressions I made, ended up on my “figura” which now I need to work on, so I can make a “bella figura” for my own daughter’s wedding.

As I grew up in the restaurant I watched my father and my uncle practice their “bella figura” on their restaurant customers. My father would ho, ho, ho while my uncle would ha, ha, ha, as a customer told a joke. My brother and I would recognize my father’s overly deep laugh and my uncle’s high pitched laugh as fake. We would look at each other and say, “bella figura”. We knew that our dad and uncle were pretending to understand the joke!

I passed on this “bella figura” concept to not only my husband but our kids as well. In the early years when my husband and I were dating, one day in front of my father, my husband bravely downed a glass of fresh warm goat’s milk that was just milked from our pet goat, Daisy so as to make a “bella figura’. Our youngest child absolutely hates butter. Whenever we would go out to dinner and his entre’ happened to be made with butter, he would have a meltdown. We would have to immediately return it and get something else. Now that he is older and married, he makes sure to make a “bella figura” whenever he eats with his wife’s family who use butter to their hearts content in everything they make! The oldest child who was in the Navy avoided many national incidents by practicing “bella figura”. In the Philippines he partook in eating everything that his hosts, the Philippine Navy, served in his honor. It was the first time and last time that he had roasted pigs face. Another time in Iraq he braced himself to accept a date dredged in yogurt from the fingers of his Iraquee guide. He made a “bella figura’’ and ate it as it was passed from one Iraqi’s hands to another’s and finally to his own.

But “bella figura” doesn’t just relate to food. Italians make sure their clothes are neatly pressed with accessories that match to the smallest detail. From the women with perfectly coiffured hair, to the men with their perfectly trimmed beards, Italians take their appearances seriously. But its not just the way they look! Even things must look good. A dessert, a gift, a garden, an entrance to a home, everything must be perfectly decorated with a flourish! Even with their children’s school studies would parents often ask, “hai fatto una bella figura?” when asking how they did in an exam. And let me explain their generosity! Italians always put their hand in their pocket to avoid “una brutta figura”! Even if someone is making a “brutta figura” in front of you, it is best to avoid noticing it. After all, it is a “bella figura” to not embarrass the person making the “brutta figura”!

In Italy one can even make a “brutta figura” while drinking coffee! I drink cappuccino whenever I feel like it. Whether it’s in the morning or after a meal, I have no problem ordering one. But when I am in Italy, I make sure to only order one in the morning because I don’t want to make a “brutta figura”! Apparently, a cappuccino is only a breakfast drink in Italy. They will serve you one, but rest assured, in their heads they are thinking,” Pfft……Americano!” Also, any real Italian, will never drink coffee out of a paper cup! Or even worse, walk around drinking out of one! That is a huge “brutta figura’!

And now to get back to this wedding. I am not only just worrying about the guest list so as not to make a “brutta figura”. I need to make sure the flowers are perfect on the tables, we present a good meal and it’s served with finesse, so we can make a “bella figura”. But honestly, what is stressing me out the most is my dress! I must find a beautiful dress that fits perfectly on this “figura” (literally) just so I don’t make a “brutta figura” (figuratively). Ohh the consequences of making a “bella figura” through the years and now I risk making a “brutta figura” at my own daughter’s wedding!


Zucchini Flower Zeppole

Male and Female Zucchini Flowers

It’s summer time and my zucchini plants are in full swing! We enjoy zucchini year-round, but you need the summer to enjoy the flowers! My family loves zeppole made with zucchini flowers. The flowers are edible and so utterly delicious that we can’t wait for summer to plant zucchini plants! I am going to show how to make these zeppole step by step! If you haven’t planted zucchini plants look for the zucchini flowers at your farmer’s market. Italians love their zucchini never letting them grow longer than 5 inches and are sold with their flowers still attached. In the picture above I have displayed the female flowers which are attached to the zucchini and the male flowers. I only use the male flowers for the zeppole. They have long stems with no zucchini attached. Some recipes call for the female flowers too but I prefer only the male flowers. The female flowers sometimes are bruised and fall apart.

                                     Ingredients:

10 to 12 male zucchini flowers, washed removing stamen and leaves
1 cup of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of baking powder
A turn of pepper mill
1 egg
½ to ¾ cup of water depending how thick you want the zeppole
¼ to ½ cup of oil for frying depending on what size pan you use. You want to have enough to fry in. I prefer extra virgin oil to fry in for extra flavor but any frying oil is good.

 

                                  Procedure:

1. Wash the flowers thoroughly making sure that you don’t inadvertently catch a bee inside the flower!

2. Remove the tiny green leaves around the flower.

3. Next break off the stamen

Take off the stamen

4. Set aside on paper towels to dry. Now to make the batter.

5. Mix the dry ingredients separately and in a separate bowl mix water and egg. Then add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix.

Mix up the batter

6. Now you have some choices!
a. Some people love to stuff the flowers (keeping the stem on) with ricotta cheese mozzarella and grated cheese twisting the top of the flower to keep the stuffing inside. And then coating them with the batter.

Stuffed Whole Zucchini Flower

 

b. You can dip the flower whole (with stem on for presentation only) into the batter.

Frying the zucchini flower Zeppole

c. You can also tear the flower in pieces ( be sure to take stem off) and placing it in batter. And putting batter in oil to fry by tablespoonfuls.

7. Next is fry your choice of flower preparation in heated oil in a skillet. I set the burner on a medium high. I like them a golden brown and then flip it over. Check often so you don’t burn them. It can take about 3 minutes or more on each side. I like to line a plate with paper towel to drain off excess oil.

Drain zeppola on paper towels

8. Finally serve and eat. I sprinkle them with a little grated sea salt. My granddaughter likes them sprinkled with sugar!

Fried Zucchini Flower Zeppole

 

Buon Appetito!