Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner

Pasta i i

hide captionIn Susan Russo's mother's Italian-American kitchen, meatballs and "gravy" (tomato sauce) were at the heart of Sunday dinners.

Susan Russo for NPR
Pasta

In Susan Russo's mother's Italian-American kitchen, meatballs and "gravy" (tomato sauce) were at the heart of Sunday dinners.

Susan Russo for NPR

About the Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

Hey, come over here, kid, learn something. ... You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh? ... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick.
— Clemenza teaches Michael to make gravy, in The Godfather

When my husband and I were dating, we would sometimes deliver papers for his family's Sunday morning paper route. I remember his mother's detailed instructions for whose paper went where — Mr. Lisi, side door; the DiFuscos, back door.

I also remember the smell that hit you as you approached each little house at the crack of dawn — not coffee, not bacon and eggs, but gravy. Many Italian Americans refer to tomato sauce cooked with meat as "gravy." And to make it correctly takes hours.

I grew up in Rhode Island, which is 19 percent Italian-American — the highest percentage of any state. In my neighborhood, every Italian-American woman with any pride started the gravy by breakfast so it would be ready for Sunday dinner at 2 p.m.

At the heart of every Sunday dinner was gravy and meatballs. Though every family had its variations, the basic premise was the same: braise cuts of pork and beef in olive oil. Add tomatoes, a few glugs of red wine, some crushed red pepper and a handful of fresh basil. Then let it cook from three to six hours until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone and the sauce turns a deep, rich red.

Once the gravy was on, the meatballs had to be made. From the time my hands were big enough to roll the meatballs, they became my contribution. My mother and I stood in the kitchen laughing, talking and rolling for hours without regard to my cold, wrinkled fingers.

The meatballs were added to the gravy and served with special pasta such as cavatelli, a small, hand-rolled shell pasta that was more expensive than spaghetti or penne and therefore reserved for special meals. At my house, the pasta was always accompanied by a side of meat, such as baked chicken or veal scaloppine. Vegetables typically included stuffed mushrooms or stuffed peppers and a sauteed bitter green, such as broccoli rabe or escarole with beans. With a salad, a loaf of crusty Italian bread and some red wine (homemade, if you were lucky), Sunday dinner was complete.

It was exactly the same every Sunday; yet, we always looked forward to it. If I close my eyes, I can see my mom's kitchen windows steaming up from the simmering gravy, hear her banging her wooden spoon on the rim of the gravy pot, and smell the meatballs sizzling in olive oil. I can also see my dad, grandmother and siblings ripping off pieces of Italian bread and dunking them in the gravy as they walked by.

Sadly, I can't imagine cooking these Sunday dinners today; they seem old-fashioned. Who's got six hours to make dinner? We're too busy. But then I think, weren't our mothers busy, too? How did they do it? In some ways, life seemed better then, certainly more so than on a recent Sunday afternoon, when I'm standing in line at the San Diego Costco.

Sitting down for family meals has been in decline in America for decades. According to surveys, however, that's beginning to change. This is good. Studies show that children who eat meals with their families are less likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to do well in school, and more likely to have a healthier diet. Not to mention that treasured childhood memories are irreplaceable.

Maybe because it's the holiday season or because I am getting older, I've been thinking a lot about my family dinners — not what we ate, but the way my mother would announce dinner by saying, "Mangia! Mangia! (Eat! Eat!)" — or the way my grandmother would still be eating well after the table had been cleared. My mom probably has no idea that 20 years later and 3,000 miles away, I reminisce about her Sunday dinners and am thankful to her for providing me with those memories — and for teaching me how to make good meatballs.

Italian-American Gravy with Meatballs and Sausage

Italian-American Gravy with Meatballs and Sausage i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Italian-American Gravy with Meatballs and Sausage
Susan Russo for NPR

Every Italian family has its own special ingredient or cooking method for gravy — some braise several different cuts of meat for added savoriness, some add toasted fennel seeds for flavor, and some even add sugar to sweeten the gravy. This is my family's version, which is made with Italian sweet sausage, red wine and San Marzano tomatoes, Italian plum tomatoes similar in taste to Roma tomatoes, but less acidic and more flavorful.

Makes 6 to 8 servings, with leftover meatballs and gravy

Gravy:

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 sweet Italian sausage links*

3 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano tomatoes

2 whole garlic cloves

1 large yellow onion, minced

3/4 cup red wine

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Salt, to taste

Meatballs:

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs (dried, store-bought breadcrumbs may be substituted)

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1/8 cup olive oil

1/8 cup canola oil

To Finish:

1 pound of pasta

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

7-8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

For Gravy:

In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil and add whole sausages. Cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until browned all over. Remove from heat and cut into 1/4-inch slices.

Pour the tomatoes into a large bowl, and crush them with your hands (or use a food mill if you prefer).

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a deep, heavy pot over medium heat. Add garlic cloves and saute for about 2 minutes, or until golden brown and aromatic. Remove the garlic and discard. Add the onion and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until softened. Pour in the tomatoes (with their juice), red wine, crushed red pepper and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

For Meatballs:

Place the meat in a large bowl. Add breadcrumbs, cheese and parsley. In a small bowl, beat the egg with some salt and pepper; add to the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the consistency is moist and the meat holds together well. If it's too dry, add a bit of water or another beaten egg. If it's too moist, add more breadcrumbs. Once the consistency is right, using your hands, roll the meatballs into 1 1/2-inch balls. It should make about 22 to 24 meatballs.

Mix the olive and canola oils in a large skillet over medium heat. Fit as many meatballs in the skillet as you can without overcrowding so you have room to turn them. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes until browned, then turn over and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, until all sides are evenly browned. Place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Repeat as necessary.

The meatballs can also be baked if you prefer not to fry them. To bake them, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place meatballs on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet (for easy clean up) and cook for 20 minutes, or until browned.

Add the cooked meatballs and sausage to the gravy after it has simmered for about an hour. Simmer for an additional 60 minutes (or up to 3 hours if you want it thicker and richer). If the sauce becomes too thick, then simply add small amounts of water or water mixed with a bit more red wine. Stir in the fresh basil just before adding gravy to the pasta.

In the meantime, cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Once cooked, add the gravy, top with meatballs and sliced sausages and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and more fresh basil.

*Sweet Italian sausage and San Marzano tomatoes can be found at Italian specialty markets, delis and most major supermarkets.

Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Olives and Pine Nuts

Broccoli rabe i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Broccoli rabe
Susan Russo for NPR

Broccoli rabe, also known as broccoli raab, rapini and rape, is a popular Italian vegetable. Though it resembles slender, leafy broccoli, it is actually a relative of the turnip. Broccoli rabe's bold, slightly bitter flavor is complemented with salty olives and hot crushed red pepper in this recipe. Be sure to cook the broccoli rabe al dente, Italian for "to the tooth," which means it should be tender but still firm at the center.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

2 bunches broccoli rabe, stems trimmed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

10 Kalamata olives, chopped

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

Salt, to taste

To toast the pine nuts, place in a small dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, or until golden brown. Shake the pan handle gently to ensure even toasting. Remove from heat.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 2 minutes; drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Shocking the rabe will maintain its vivid green color and stop it from cooking. After a couple of minutes, drain the rabe in a colander.

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and saute until it turns golden, about 2 minutes. Add the drained broccoli rabe, olives, crushed red pepper and salt. Saute about 5 minutes more, until al dente. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts before serving. Serve immediately.

Italian Stuffed Peppers

Italian stuffed peppers i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Italian stuffed peppers
Susan Russo for NPR

Though Italian stuffed peppers can be made with rice, breadcrumbs and/or meats, my grandmother always made hers with crusty Italian bread — a family favorite. She referred to her stuffed peppers as a "peasant dish," since they were a way to use up stale bread. Since she cooked instinctually and never used recipes, this recipe is based on my own cooking and my memory of her peppers.

Makes 6 servings

1/2 pound stale Italian bread, torn into small pieces (4 1/2 to 5 cups)

10 Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 large egg, lightly beaten

6 small red bell peppers (about 3 to 4 inches tall)

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on top of stuffed peppers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut stale bread into a few thick slices and moisten with warm water. Wet the bread just enough to soften it but not soak it. If it's too wet, then just squeeze it dry with your hands. Tear the bread into small pieces (about 1/2-inch), and place in a large bowl.

Add olives, olive oil, cheese, salt, red pepper and parsley. Mix well with your hands or with a wooden spoon. I usually taste it at this point and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Add the lightly beaten egg, and mix until it is well absorbed. If the stuffing seems too dry and crumbly, add a little more olive oil or water; if it's too moist, add a bit more bread.

Wash and dry the peppers. Using a pairing knife, remove the stem, core and seeds. Divide the stuffing equally among the 6 peppers. Place stuffed peppers in a casserole or similar baking dish and drizzle the tops with 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until peppers are softened, wrinkly and a few brown spots appear on the skin. If the stuffing is browning too much, cover the tops of the peppers with a piece of aluminum foil. Serve hot or at room temperature. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley, if desired.

Veal Scaloppine Milanese

Veal Scaloppine Milanese i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Veal Scaloppine Milanese
Susan Russo for NPR

Scaloppine refers to a thinly sliced cut of meat, such as chicken, pork or veal, that is floured then sauteed. My family always preferred veal scaloppine Milanese, veal coated in a crunchy breadcrumb and Parmesan cheese mixture. There are many scaloppine variations, including marsala (made with marsala wine) and piccata (made with white wine and capers). You can buy scaloppine veal from the butcher or prepare it yourself (see below).

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound veal cutlets, thinly sliced

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs (dried store-bought breadcrumbs may be substituted)

1/2 cup grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1/8 cup olive oil

A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped for garnish

Lemon wedges, for garnish

1 to 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, drizzled on top when finished

Place the veal cutlets between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them gently with the toothed side of a meat mallet to soften the meat. Then use the smooth side of the mallet to flatten the scaloppine to about a 1/4- to 1/8-inch thickness.

Spread the flour on a sheet of wax paper or a large plate. In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs. In a separate bowl, mix breadcrumbs, cheese, red pepper flakes and salt.

In a medium skillet, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat until mixture starts to bubble and foam.

Meanwhile, dredge the scaloppine in the flour, shaking off the excess. Then dip it in the egg, letting any excess drip into the bowl. Finally, gently place it in the bread-crumb mixture and turn to coat evenly.

Place the scaloppine in the skillet, without overcrowding. Fry for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the underside looks crispy and golden brown. Turn once, and cook about 2 minutes more. Transfer the cooked veal to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Remove from plate, place on a baking sheet, and keep in a warm (200 degree F) oven until ready to serve. Repeat with remaining pieces of veal.

Drizzle with 1 to 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil before serving, and sprinkle with fresh parsley, if desired.

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