Strictly Italian


Where I grew up, Italians did not call it tomato sauce.  They called it gravy.  Growing up we had macaroni at least twice a week, every week.  It was just part of life.  Gravy then was made with meat balls and sausage. Sometimes other meats were added.  Today, I use what I have and no one complains.

Measuring Salt and Other Seasoning
Salt for gravy or for macaroni was always measured in the palm of your hand, cupped together. You filled up the little crevice your hand made with the salt and that was how you measured.  I tried to measure this once and it is actually about a half a teaspoon.  Most of the seasoning was never measured actually.  As a rule, it is better to start with less and then add more to taste.

Mincing Garlic
My father taught me how to mince garlic.  The smell of it still reminds me of him standing over the cutting board.  Separate a clove, with the skin still on, place on the cutting board and press it with the side of the knife firmly until slightly crushed. The skin will come over easily now and the fragrance will be released and it will be easier to chop fine. Slice off top end of the garlic and chop into very small pieces.  The smaller the chop the more quickly it will cook and blend into the food.  

Meat balls
It is easier to bake the meat balls than fry them, especially if you are making more than one pound.  Take a large cookie sheet and line it with aluminum foil.  Preheat the over to 350 degrees.
  1. Start 2-3 pounds of fresh chop meat. Usually I make meat balls within 24 hours of purchasing the fresh chop meat, then freezing the meat balls to use later on.
  2. Beat 1 egg per pound of meat in a large mixing bowl.  Add a splash of milk. 
  3. Mix in Italian flavored bread crumbs a little at a time, until pasty.  The mixture should look almost dry.
  4. Mix the meat with the bread crumb mixture using your hands until fully blended. 
  5. Taking a small handful of meat/bread crumb mixture, roll firmly in your palms until round.  Place on the cookie sheet. Roll the rest of the meat balls.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour.  Remove, cool, and freeze in a zip lock back if desired.
If you are frying the meat balls instead, use a heavy steel or cast iron pan.  Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Preheat pan, and then add meat balls carefully (you don’t want the hot oil to splash).  Use two table spoons to turn the meat balls until browned on at least 3 sides.  Then cool and freeze in a zip lock bag if desired.


Gravy: Traditional Method
  1. In a large pot, coat the bottom of the pot with oil.
  2. Brown 1 pound of Italian sausage, turning to brown all sides.
  3. As they cook, poke them with the fork so they do not explode.
  4. When they are brown, drain excess fat.
  5. Mince 2-3 cloves garlic, add to pot and cook and stir until fragrant.
  6. Add 2-3 large cans of crushed tomatoes.
  7. Add meat balls. 
  8. Add handful of salt, sprinkle of pepper, basil and oregano and stir until blended.
  9. Bring gravy to a boil, then lower the heat until it is barely bubbling. 
  10. Stir often, being careful to scrape the bottom of the pot.  Cook for 1 ½ to 2 hours for best taste.

Crock Pot Gravy
Get out of bed.  Have a cup of coffee first.  This important because you can hurt yourself cooking so early in the morning.  But you will be so pleased to come home to find dinner half done.
Place several frozen meat balls in your crock pot.  Add 2 cans of crushed tomatoes.  Season with a handful of salt, sprinkle of pepper, basil, oregano, garlic powder (or minced fresh garlic).  Stir, and set cooker on low. Have a great day.  Serve over cooked pasta when you get home.
You can add sausage: browned or not, even frozen.  Browning them is better but it is ok even if you can’t squeeze that into your morning.  You can use sausage even if you have no meat balls.   

Simple Sauce
Ok, so we call this sauce.  This is when you don’t want to eat meat, or there isn’t any defrosted.  Growing up, this was Friday night dinner. It sounds easy and it was (thus the name!), but it was true comfort food.  It is best over thin spaghetti or linguini.
  1. In a medium pot, coat the bottom of the pot with oil.
  2. Mince 2 cloves garlic, add to pot and cook and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  3. Add 1 large can crushed tomatoes.
  4. Add handful of salt, sprinkle of pepper, basil and oregano and stir until blended.
  5. Bring gravy to a boil, then lower the heat until it is barely bubbling. 
  6. Stir often, being careful to scrape the bottom of the pot.  Cook for 20-30 minutes for best taste.
  7. Serve over hot pasta.

Eggplant Parmigiana
My mother-in-law made the world’s best eggplant.  She would cook 4 enormous ones at a time and it would take forever.  I try to limit myself to 2 medium size so it is not such an overwhelming job.  The best way to do this is with a friend.  When the girls were small and we stayed at the beach in the summers, my mother-in-law and I would make eggplant together after dinner with my daughters watching us.  Plan on at least 2 hours.  Once you start frying the eggplant, you can not leave it unattended, trust me, I’ve tried it and I know.
  1. Make a batch of Simple Sauce using 2 cans of crushed tomatoes.
  2. Peel two medium/large eggplants and slice thin, less than ¼ inch if possible.
  3. Slice 1 lb mozzarella cheese into thin slices.
  4. Beat 4 eggs and a splash of milk.  Sprinkle a good amount of grated cheese and stir well.
  5. Use a 12 inch fry pan, cast iron is the best.  Cover the bottom of the pan with oil and heat on medium heat for a few minutes, waiting for the oil to get hot.
  6. Dip an eggplant slice in egg, place in the fry pan in one layer. 
  7. Fry on one side until golden, then turn over to fry the other side.
  8. When golden on both sides, remove to a plate covered in paper towels.
  9. Repeat until all the eggplant is fried.  Add more oil if needed.
  10. When eggplant is done, cook any remaining egg – fry in a thin layer, turning so golden on both sides.  This can be layered with the eggplant.  No one will notice!
In a large glass baking pan:
  1. Coat the bottom of the pan with the Simple Sauce.
  2. Place a layer of eggplant over the sauce, overlapping edges.
  3. Cover with a layer of mozzarella cheese and then more sauce. 
  4. Sprinkle with grated cheese.
  5. Repeat layers until you run out of eggplant.
  6. At this point, you can cover and refrigerate or freeze until ready to serve.
  7. Cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes if just assembled and still warm, or 1 hour if cold from the refrigerator.  Cheese will be melted and eggplant will be bubbling.  Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Chicken Parmigiana
When my dad was not well and my mother was caring for him, I would visit her in November for her birthday and cook for a whole day.  I would make eggplant parmigiana and gravy and meat balls and chicken parmigiana and freeze them into meal size portions and that was her birthday present.  She thought is was the best present ever because the meals would last her through the winter on evenings when she did not have the energy to cook while caring for my dad.
My daughters would come and play with her while I cooked and also loved the chicken parm.  I hardly ever made it at home, but Christina loved it and wanted me to include it in this book.
  1. If you have left over gravy, that is ideal.  If not, make a recipe of Simple Sauce, using 2 cans of crushed tomatoes.
  2. Start with 2-3 lbs of skinless, boneless chicken breasts.  If they are not sliced thin, place them flat on a plastic cutting board and with your hand pressed on top, cut across the cutlet with a sharp knife.
  3. Beat 3 eggs with a splash of milk in a shallow bowl.
  4. Put Italian flavored bread crumbs in another dish.
  5. Heat oil in a cast iron or stainless steel 12 inch fry pan until the oil is hot.
  6. Dip one chicken cutlet in bread crumbs on both sides until well coated.
  7. Dip it then in the eggs on both sides.
  8. Add to fry pan.  Continue until fry pan is full.
  9. Cook chicken until golden brown on both sides and remove to plate.  Continue until all chicken cutlets are cooked, adding more oil if needed.
  10. In a large baking pan, add gravy to the bottom to coat.
  11. Add one layer of chicken, close together.
  12. Cover with more gravy.
  13. Top with thin slices of mozzarella cheese.
  14. Cover and refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.
  15. Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour if still warm, or 1 hour if it had been refrigerated, until cheese is melted and pan is bubbling.

Baked Macaroni
This is another one of my mother-in-law’s dishes that I have never seen made anywhere else.  It was a favorite “take with you meal.”   Often she brought it to the beach when she came to visit, to the delight of our whole family.
  1. Brown 2 pounds of chop meat in a large pot.  Stir often until it all the meat changes color to brown.   Drain excess fat if desired.
  2. Add 2 large cans of crushed tomatoes.
  3. Add handful of salt, sprinkle of pepper, garlic powder, basil and oregano and stir until blended.
  4. Bring gravy to a boil, then lower the heat until it is barely bubbling. 
  5. Stir often, being careful to scrape the bottom of the pot.  Cook for 20-30 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water and add handful of salt.
  7. When it reaches boiling, add 1 pound of elbow macaroni and cook until firm, not completely done.  Drain well.
  8. In a large glass baking pan, coat the bottom with gravy.
  9. Put half the elbows on top. Add a little gravy.
  10. Cover completely with packaged sliced yellow cheese.
  11. Cover with a liberal amount of gravy.
  12. Repeat with the rest of the elbows, cover with cheese.
  13. Cover with gravy/meat mixture, allowing all the meat to cover the top of the elbows. 
  14. Sprinkle with grated cheese.
  15. Cover with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and refrigerate. 
  16. When ready to cook, place in 350 degree over for 1 hour until bubbling hot and meat on the top is beginning to crisp.
  17. Serve with additional grated cheese.

Lentils and Pasta
Comfort food from my mother-in-law, this is so simple but so good.
  1. Peel and slice one large onion. 
  2. In a medium pot, sauté onion in a small amount of oil, stirring frequently until translucent.
  3. Add 1 can Progresso lentil soup.  Stir and cook until hot, about 4-5 minutes.
  4. Serve over cooked spaghetti with grated cheese.

Sausage and Peppers – White
Another trick my mother-in-law taught me was peppers can be frozen raw.  Rinse, slice and remove the seeds, then place then in a plastic bag and freeze.  When you are ready to cook, just add them to the pot.  This is a good way to buy them on sale and keep for later use.
  1. In a large heavy pot, coat or spray with oil.  Place sausages in the bottom of the pot.
  2. Cook covered, turning to brown the sides evenly.
  3. When almost fully browned, remove and cut in half or thirds. Return to pot, stirring and continue to brown.
  4. Rinse and slice 2 peppers, removing seeds.  Add to pot.  Stir and cover.
  5. Peel and cut 2 onions into large chunks.  Add to pot. 
  6. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cover.
  7. Cook covered, stirring often until sausages are cooked through and peppers and onions are limp.
  8. Serve with crusty bread.

Sausage and Peppers - Red
  1. In a large heavy pot, coat or spray with oil.  Place sausages in the bottom of the pot.
  2. Cook covered, turning to brown the sides evenly.
  3. When almost fully browned, remove and cut in half or thirds. Return to pot, stirring and continue to brown.
  4. Rinse and slice 2 peppers, removing seeds.  Add to pot. 
  5. Add 1 can crushed tomatoes.
  6. Add a handful of salt, pepper, garlic powder, basil and oregano. 
  7. Stir and cover. Cook about 1 hour.
It is even easier in the crock pot:
  1. Place sliced peppers on the bottom of the pot.
  2. Add sausages on top.  They can be browned or raw.
  3. Add a handful of salt, pepper, garlic powder, basil and oregano.
  4. Add 1 can crushed tomatoes.
  5. Cook 8-10 hours on high.


Escarole and Bean Soup
Although escarole soup is another meal that takes a while to cook, it is worth it.  It is a meal in one pot.
  1. Coat the bottom of a large, heavy pot with oil.  Turn on the heat to low.
  2. Put several slices of pepperoni in the pot and sauté a few minutes, turning once.
  3. Peel and finely chop a small onion.  Add to the pot and sauté until translucent.
  4. Mince 2-3 cloves of garlic and add to the pot and cook 1 minute.
  5. Add 3-4 cups of water.
  6. Pull each leaf off of a head of escarole.  Wash each leaf well separately.  Drain and rip into pieces. Add to the pot.
  7. Peel and slice 2-3 carrots and add to the pot.
  8. Add a handful of salt, sprinkle of pepper and basil.  You can add 2 teaspoons of chicken bouillon instead of the salt, if desired.
  9. Stir and cook until the escarole has become limp and carrots begin to get tender, about 20 minutes.
  10. Add 2 cans of cannelloni beans, drained. If soup is too thick, add more water.  Cook on low.
  11. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, boil small pasta, such as orzo, or spaghetti broken into smaller pieces, until not quite tender. 
  12. Drain pasta and add to soup.  Stir and cook another minute.


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