My grandma was an excellent cook; not a fancy gourmet chef, but a home cook who could make simple ingredients into an epic meal. The stairwell to her second floor flat in Brooklyn heralded the warmth and goodness waiting behind her door. She enveloped each of her visitors with big arm hugs and kisses.
Grandma’s Sunday sauce cooked all day. Leftover meats from the week flavored the sauce. Sunday dinner took all day with plates of antipasto, macaroni and meatballs, sides of asparagus, and zucchini cooked to perfection, cookies from the corner bakery, and stuffed artichokes leaves to scrape on our teeth and nuts to crack and pick through as the last of the conversations and games wound down.
Grandma did not teach anyone how to cook. You had to be in her kitchen, sipping her Sanka instant decaf coffee (decaf coffee was not her “healthy” specialty), chatting about anything while observing her techniques. She was generous with tips and shortcuts, and there was a wide smile as she stirred. I loved reaching up to the pot with the heel of Italian bread to dip in the sauce. Cooking for family was her joy.
Grandma did not measure. She cooked by feel, taste, and smell. She understood food. When I took her grocery shopping, she looked for specific brands of oil and canned tomatoes and sorted through the green beans, squeezed onions, and smelled the garlic bulbs. The deli clerks knew how to slice the prosciutto and grate the Pecorino Romano cheese just the way she liked it. When I inherited one of her cookbooks titled The All Italian Cookbook, I was disappointed to find that she did not leave notes in it. She used it for ideas, not directions.
Somehow, she knew the nutrition value of every food that came across her counter. When I was pregnant with my first child and incredibly nauseous consuming the prescribed amount of milk and yogurt (I was lactose intolerant before it became fashionable), I worried that my baby’s bones would be weakened by my neglect. Grandma blanched broccoli, cooled it in time so that the color remained bright and the texture was crisp. She baked the broccoli with a sprinkle of grated Pecorino Romano cheese (I later learned that this cheese was made from sheep milk).
“There is more calcium in one broccoli spear then in a quart of milk,” she claimed. And it was delicious. My baby was born healthy and strong.
Every summer my parents hosted a family picnic at their home. Anywhere from seventy to one hundred relations, and those we have known so long they may as well be related, would show up in my parents’ backyard. Everyone brought something—potluck Truglio style. Grandma cooked her clam chowder in her largest pot. The taste was robust and smoky, and there was an abundance of fresh clams. It was a perfect evening nosh after a fun day playing bocce and volleyball, swimming and skiing in the bay, catching up with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and eating. Grandma’s Clam Chowder was a favorite for all except Grandma. She did not care for the seafood or fish she cooked.
“Grandma, how can you cook these amazing calamari, baked blowfish, and scungilli dishes without tasting or liking them?”
“I know how it should smell and there is always someone tasting for me for final approval,” she replied. Then she would laugh.
I did sip her Sanka instant coffee while watching her make the chowder several times. One time, I smartly wrote down the ingredients and sequence.I noted quantities and proportions. When Grandma passed, it was all I had to recreate Grandma’s Clam Chowder. The first attempts failed. Everyone has suggestions. I eventually learned to trust my smell and taste memory. I left the measuring spoons in the drawer and remembered to smile while I stirred.
Over the years the chowder has evolved to my own concoction. I use diced tomatoes instead of tomato juice, my home-made pesto, and roasted garlic. No matter how much the chowder has changed, it is still called Grandma’s Clam Chowder. I take it as a beloved compliment.
Grandma’s Clam Chowder
Finely diced celery or fennel, onion, red pepper, and zucchini
Yukon potatoes peeled and diced
Can diced tomatoes
Chicken or vegetable broth
Garlic, preferably roasted, finely diced
Red pepper flakes, pepper, salt, and oregano
12-18 cherry stone or chowder size clams shucked and chopped- save the juice
Cook the bacon until crispy in the soup pot. Remove the bacon but keep the fat in the pot. Chop the bacon bits and set aside.
Use the fat from the bacon to fry the celery or fennel, onion, red pepper, zucchini, and potatoes until the onion is translucent.
Pour equal amounts of broth and tomato and add pesto, oregano, garlic and bacon. Season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste.
Simmer until vegetables are softened and tomatoes taste done.
Add clams and the juice. Adjust consistency with water or broth.
Simmer for a while. Adjust taste with seasonings.
Grandma’s Clam Chowder is wonderful over a piece of crusty bread and topped with a sprinkle of grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer.The memoir chronicles a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with cancer. It is published by She Writes Press and will be available everywhere books are sold on October 3, 2017.
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Categories: Back in the Day Stories