Tag Archives: food

Marrying into an Italian family: baptism by sauce

31 Aug

Jars of sauce, ready to boil.

I married a first-generation Italian boy. In my youth–usually enamored by the loud, showy, unreliable, ebullient jackass-type–I found solace in his quiet reserve. His complete and unabashed loyalty. His work ethic. His handsomeness. His amazing family.

Although I am half Italian, I am not Italian Italian like my husband’s family. My in-laws came here in 1968, shortly before my husband was born. They did not know the language. They did not know any other “Americans.” They did not have anything but what they could carry over. But they had each other. Many people from the same part of Italy settled in a particular part of Pittsburgh called Bloomfield. I was lucky enough to start out my married life in this neighborhood, and many of my husband’s relatives still live here. I felt like I had become a member of a magical and cloistered society. Where Italian was still spoken around the table, prosciutto (made by my father-in-law) was hanging from garage rafters, where homemade wine was placed on the table for every meal, and every supper had a pasta course, then a meat and vegetable, followed by a salad–and of course an espresso to finish it all off.

Unidentified relatives of mine from Calabria.

My mother is Italian and I grew up learning how to cook from her and her mother, my Grandma Rizzo–also a first generation Italian born in 1918. I learned how to bake bread for Easter, always rolling out two small dough strips before covering the bread to rise, using the strips to make a cross over the dough to bless it and, according to my gram, help it to raise. My grandma would make bread each year on the feast day of Saint Anthony and get it blessed at the church in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. Sometimes when I was looking in one of her buffet drawers for something, I would find little stale frizenes (a crunchy anise-flavored type of bread, typically eaten buttered and then dipped in coffee) from previous years, tucked neatly away into socks. Kept safe since they were blessed, not to be eaten.

Saint Anthony

An interesting thing happens in many immigrant families. Oftentimes, the people from the origin country culturally progress and give up “the old ways,” but those that emigrate to another country hold onto the traditions of their home. So, even though the customs and lifestyle of the mother country have changed, the immigrants hold on to the ways that they left. It is what ties them to home. It is how they remember.

On my in-law’s most recent trip to Italy, my mother-in-law lamented that many of her friends and family still living there had given up on many of the labor-intensive traditions. The fine lace work to embellish tablecloths, the pasta from scratch–even the canning of fresh tomato sauce. I am so blessed that my husband’s family, my family, has held on to the old ways.

So every year in August, we travel to a local farm to pick tomatoes. This year we brought home 11 bushels.

It’s a family job and everyone pitches in. What makes things particularly effective, is that we process everything outside. My father-in-law has acquired steel drums and large burners that run from propane tanks. Pots and utensils travel between homes when it’s a family’s particular day to do their canning (sisters-in-law, parents, etc.). The tomatoes are usually left to ripen for a few days before processing. Calls are exchanged between family to discuss the ripeness. The final decision is always made by my husband’s parents on what day we should finally jar everything.

The process, although time- and labor-intensive, is quite simple. The tomatoes are washed, cored, squeezed (of water and seeds), boiled, machine processed, canned, and boiled.

Tatone, Paulie, and Uncle Ronnie processing the tomatoes.

We don’t add anything but some fresh basil to the top of the jars before canning. We flavor the sauce when we use it.

Making the final sauce is pretty subjective, and is all about what you like. Your sauce will end up being great if you just try your best and add what you like. Personally, I shred up a carrot and onion and fry in olive oil. Then brown some lamb and add the tomatoes to that. I flavor with salt, basil, oregeno, and parsley, but like to go very easy on the garlic.

Believe me when I tell you, there is nothing like the taste of sauce on the day the tomatoes are crushed. Nothing. Of course, after a day of canning, a big dinner is prepared where you taste the fruits of your labor.

Happiness is when you finally sit down after canning and cooking all day, look over to your youngest son, and watch him doing this:

Anthony enjoying his pasta.

Trash-Mex Cuisine: “Tortilla Lasagna”

18 Mar

I just finished a four day fast. I like to do this type of thing a few times a year and it just seemed right to start it on Monday. Sometimes, I go longer than four days, but this time I didn’t. Every now and then, I like to let food know that it I’m not its bitch. To commemorate my foray back into eating again, I would like to share the most excellent concoction I’ve made in the last month. The nice thing is, if you want to make this totally meatless on a Friday (heya fellow Catholics), then bake away.

And with the help of an amalgam of about 100 recipes, I bring to you:

Allison’s Trash-Mex Tortilla Casserole

(Oh, I’ve got a WHOLE repertoire of self-proclaimed Trash-Mex recipes. And they all rock.)

First off, I want you to think of this like a lasagna: it’s got (repeated) layers of  “starch,” “sauce,” and cheese.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Optional meat layer

Cooked chicken (about 4 chicken breasts, diced)

Starch layer

One package of soft tortillas

Cheese layer

3-4 cups of any cheese you like (we used a Monterrey jack blend)

Sauce layer


2 T oil

1 onion

2 peppers (I used a red and a yellow)


One jar of salsa

One can of mexi-corn (or any corn with a jar of green chiles)

One can of crushed tomatoes


Spoon some of the mexi-sauce layer in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan

On top of the mexi-sauce, layer some soft tortillas like so (I’ve also ALWAYS wanted to say “like so”)
Layer each subsequent tortilla layer with the mexi-sauce, cheese, and (optionally) some cooked chicken and repeat until you can’t anymore.

Cover with aluminum foil to cook.


350 for about 45 minutes. Take off the foil to make the top cheese all melty the last 10 minutes.

Additional notes:

  • You will want to let this cool a WHILE before you eat it. If not, it will 1. be hot as magma 2. not stay together very well, and therefore 3. not look very visually pleasing on your plate. I’d say at least 1/2 hour, an hour if you can keep your mitts off of it.
  • I have found this dish to be exceptionally good (or better) the next day. I even like it cold, but I’m weird that way.
  • You can add anything else you want to your sauce. Like jalapenos? Throw ’em in that sauce. Honestly, I think this rocks with whatever *you* like in your “Trash-Mex” cooking.
  • ENJOY. I’ve always wanted to add that word to a direction/recipe. I like when that is the last step of anything. It’s a nice touch.
  • If you don’t like it, the next time I see you, I will hug you. That’s a promise, not a threat.
%d bloggers like this: