Since I was a little girl, Sunday’s have always had a special meaning. When you’re fortunate enough to grow up in a multi-cultural family, like myself, you are born into a world of some magnificent foods, and family traditions that stay with you for a lifetime. My only wish has always been to pass on those childhood memories, traditions, recipes, and for them to be replicated for generations to come. Today, I am going to take you on a journey on how I got to a place that I call…”Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”
My dad was born, and raised in Puerto Rico, and he came to New York at the age of 16. My mother was born in Harlem, and her parents, (my grandparents) were Italian immigrants from Naples, Italy, who eventually settled in Mt. Vernon, New York. Me, an American, born, and raised into a family of Puerto Rican, and Napolitano descent…I call it, “the best of both worlds.” I feel cheated in a sense that I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents. My maternal grandparents died when I was very young, and I only have small bits, and pieces of a memory of my grandmother, who died when I was 6 years old. My paternal grandparents lived in Puerto Rico, and my grandfather would never get on a plane to come to New York, to visit or anywhere else, for that matter…his famous words were, “If God meant for me to fly, he would have made me a bird.” I did have the opportunity to visit them, twice in their lifetime, but that’s a story for another day.
While Puerto Rican, and Italian food cultures are completely different, family bonds, and family meals were extremely important, and strong in both cultures. Interestingly enough, my father was a better cook than my mother, however, we would never tell her this…she would have been crushed. My dad was probably the first influence in my life, where I learned to be completely passionate about food, and the art of cooking. His belief with cooking…”cooking took time, and you just couldn’t rush it.”
First, let me start with my Puerto Rican heritage. I have memories of waking up, on Saturday mornings, to my dad just coming back from somewhere in the Bronx (I always regretted not asking where, exactly), with this fabulous Spanish bread, Pan de Agua (Puerto Rican Water Bread), which was always still warm, and the butter would just melt right into it. Heavenly!
Then there was always that little white box that contained Budin (Puerto Rican Bread Pudding). It was so delicious, and it’s nearly impossible for me to describe its flavor, and taste but I can tell you this, I have never found a replication of it that can come even close to it. I have searched, and searched, and that flavor, smell, and taste are burned into my childhood memory, and I am still hopeful that one day we will meet again.
Some Puerto Rican dishes that were pretty much a staple in our house…pernil (Puerto Rican slow roasted pork), rice with gandules (pigeon peas), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tostones (fried plantains), and flan that delicious vanilla custard, with just a touch of a caramel flavor.
However, there are three dishes that hold the fondest memories for me, from my childhood until today. Paella was a special treat, and my dad would take us to a restaurant in City Island (again, regrettably, I don’t remember the name) but the length of time it took to make this one pot meal, which includes chicken, chorizo, mussels, clams, shrimp, pork, and some other great ingredients, and flavors, was well worth the wait.
Then there were pasteles, which is a cherished culinary recipe, and they are typically made only around the holidays (most often, Christmas). I wouldn’t even attempt to recite what the ingredients are…I don’t have the knowledge or the experience with making them to give them the justice they so rightfully deserve. What I do know, is they are extremely labor intensive, and are made in batches of a hundred or more, and when you receive these culinary treasures, as a gift, sharing is something you really think about, and most often, you don’t want to part with them.
Lastly, I think the meal cooked by my father that we still talk about till this day, my children, sister’s, and nephew included, is Bistec Encebollado, which is fondly known as Poppy’s Steak & Onions. It is strips of shoulder beef medallions (pounded thinly), and sliced onions, which were marinated together for hours in garlic, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, and Poppy’s secret sofrito, and adobo (well, he thought it was a secret). He would sauté everything, and stew all of it for hours, and then it was served with white rice, and beans. While it may not sound like much…trust me, after the bread dipping into the juices, and the fighting for the last piece of succulent steak, everyone left that meal extremely satisfied. This was just one of many dishes that I wished I paid closer attention too. Even though we all know the ingredients or we think we do, no one has perfected it nor has anyone come close to replicating Poppy’s Steak and Onions.
Typically, they say your mother’s heritage, and traditions dominate your upbringing. For me, while my father had a great influence in my life, he had very little family in New York, and with my mother being one of eight children (4 sisters, 4 brothers), it was her Italian side that dominated my upbringing. Since our home was fairly small (a 2nd floor apartment), most Sunday dinners were spent with one of my relatives on my mother’s side but that’s not to say there weren’t meals at my mother’s table. She always found room, and there was always enough.
Growing up in a large Italian family, (4 generations of 90 or more, and growing), there is such a wealth of knowledge around cooking. I learned from many, if not, from all of my aunts, who I consider to be some of the best home cooks, how to perfect my cooking skills, and the precision, along with the finesse in presenting food. They truly cooked with love, a lot of passion, and for each one of them, it was always about pleasing those sitting at their table, and the gratification they received from your enjoyment of their food.
I grew up watching, and standing, side by side with many of my aunts, at their stoves, mentally absorbing their skills, and techniques. With the exception of baking, which is pure science, they were cooks who measured nothing, and they could never really recite a recipe without saying, a pinch, a handful or palm full measurement. Everything was measured visually, and by taste. It’s a talent that’s hard to learn unless you really enjoy cooking or more importantly, paid attention.
I grew up on Italian favorites such as, pasta fagioli (macaroni and beans), bistecca alla pizzaiola (steak, marinara, garlic, oregano, mushrooms, onions, and stewed in one pot), and pasta e piselli con carne macinata – sauté onions, and garlic with ground beef, add peas, penne, small elbow macaroni or ditalini, and meld everything together. Serve with grated cheese, and crushed red pepper flakes…ahhh, a feast!
One of my lasting memories is of my aunt’s famous, patate e uova frittata (potato and egg omelet), which included five pounds of potatoes, and at least a dozen or more eggs. She cooked the potatoes in this old cast iron pan, which she still has today, and when the potatoes were nearly cooked, she added the beaten eggs. Once the frittata was done, it was about 3 inches high, and the potatoes always had a crisp to them. Visually, it is an absolute work of art, and since the pan is so heavy, my uncle is in charge of turning it over so that it can continue to cook, and once done, onto a serving dish, and he would carefully place that masterpiece on the table.
Sunday’s were always about family visits, eating, and playing with your cousins, who lived near, or far. It could be any one of your relatives house that you would visit…traveling to the Bronx or to Flushing or to Brooklyn or to somewhere in between. Whoever’s house it was, it was almost a guarantee the smell of frying meatballs would immediately hit your senses once you walked through the front door, and that Sunday pot of gravy (yes, we call it gravy, not sauce) would be simmering on the stove. The Sunday meal was considered a feast, and that pot of gravy included meatballs, pork, braciole, and pelle di maiale (pig skin), which while today it is considered so unhealthy (I agree)…back then it was so delicious, and it just melted in your mouth after being cooked for hours in the gravy.
Before we ventured out to visit family, my dad always took a ride, after Sunday mass, of course…to the Italian deli, Zuccarelli’s, on Gramatan Ave, and to Dante’s Italian Bakery on 241st Street in the Bronx. It was a given, you never visited family without bringing pastries. I can remember walking into that deli, and even as a child, you were immediately intoxicated by the aroma of the delicacies on display. The Italian cold cuts, specialties, and breads that were purchased were either for the weeks lunches or if you were still hungry when you arrived home from the Sunday family dinner, which usually started at 1pm (on Sunday’s, lunch was dinner), you had an early evening sandwich. And as for the Italian pastries, who could resist a cannoli or a chocolate éclair or a sfogliatelle or a pasticiotto…just to name a few.
All of these influences have added to my current day traditional Italian Sunday dinners, and holiday’s with my family. Sadly, my parents are no longer with us but the traditions they instilled in me live on. When my children were growing up, my son would smell those Sunday morning meatballs in his sleep, and he would immediately wake up to eat a few of them, just fried, before they went into the pot of gravy. As he got older, and those teenage years rolled around, he didn’t get up as easily but Mom always made sure there was a small bowl of fried meatballs left on the kitchen counter for him.
Before becoming a Nana, my dream had always been for my grandchildren to wake up on a Sunday morning, and say, “I want to go to Nana’s to eat her meatballs.” Today, with the busy lives that many people lead, and with both parents in the workplace, along with keeping up with children’s sports activities, school work, social events, just to name a few…Sunday dinners, as I grew up knowing them to be, has changed. Maybe it’s too much work or maybe people have become very health conscious (everything in moderation is my motto) or maybe families just decided to change, and start making their own new Sunday traditions. However, for me, a Sunday dinner, any holiday or any meal, for that matter, will never be anything less than it was for me growing up…not for this Nana.
Today, my sisters, and I have grown our immediate family into 16, which now includes our own children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews to great nieces and nephews. Last year, when I moved into my new home, my first priority purchase was my dream dining room table…one that seats 12, and then there is always that folding table for 4, which is fondly known as the kids table. Most Sunday’s, Nana’s table is filled with family, and whoever shows up, shows up. It’s a given that there is always enough, there is always room, and an invite is not necessary.
Over the years, the biggest self-gratification, and compliments I could ever receive have been endless. My 11 year old grandson is truly convinced that his Nana once had a cooking show on Food Network, and my 4 year old nephew says, “Aunt Deb’s meatballs are the best.” With every Christmas Eve, in the past, that was hosted at another family members house, it was a given that I would receive a frantic call from my son or nephew confirming I was still doing the cooking, and lastly, my cooking being referred to as “gourmet” is the ultimate compliment I could ever receive.
I always tell my daughter, and now I include my daughter-in-law, and granddaughter’s…“pay attention because I am not going to be around forever” (reality) but for as long as I am here, and I am physically able, Nana’s stove will always have a Sunday Pot of Love simmering on it, and it will always be filled with my famous meatballs, sausage, and succulent pork that falls off the bone.
The meal will always begin with antipasti, which typically includes fresh mozzarella, fried sweet and hot peppers, an assortment of Italian olives, and soppressata.
There will always be fresh Italian bread or a homemade focaccia, along with one of Nana’s famous dessert creations. Dessert can be anything from a puffed pastry apple tart served warm with vanilla ice cream to chocolate lava cake to zeppoles with apricot dipping sauce.
Cooking together as a family builds strong family bonds, memories, and it brings everyone together for laughter, sharing old and new stories, learning, and teaching old family traditions. So surround yourself with family, pour a cup of coffee or espresso or a glass of wine…break out the flour, and dust off that mixer, chop some garlic, and take out the hidden cast iron or frying pan. Get yourself some extra virgin olive oil, and some great Italian cheese, olives, bread, and put on your mad scientist hat!
When you’re passionate about food, the possibilities are endless. In the end there will always be a tasteful surprise, and more importantly, it’s a feast with the people you love, family! The family this Nana loves, will always have a place at her stove, and her table, and unconditionally, they will always hold a special place in her heart, and in her life, along with “Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”
La famiglia e mangiare!