Family tradition can mean something different to everyone.
To me the meaning is deeply steeped in food. The smell, texture and of course taste of a ravioli in pink sauce or a layered al dente lasagna can take me back to my Italian American mother’s kitchen and our family of nine sitting around the table in a simple blink of the eye.
Sure food is sustenance – we need it to live – but when a family comes together to create a feast – step by loving step – it evokes much more than the “need to feed”. In my family, my mother’s pork tortellini en brodo is truly the food of love.
Late in the evening, I remember my mother and father lightly arguing about the best technique – even at the earliest stage of the preparation – does the meat (undoubtedly a 4-5lb. pork shoulder or pork butt) need to be browned prior to it’s eight hours in the pot of water or is it better to boil it without browning? It was a gentle argument, the subjective opinion of each really – but there was never any question that a compromise would be reached and the meat would sizzle in oil for the briefest of submission on my mother’s part before being submerged for step number two – the salt and pepper boil. Soon the house would smell of something so delicious that you would want to cut the air with a knife and take a little bite right then and there.
During the boil, there’s always work to do, preparing for step number three – making the filing. I never liked this part – it was hard for me – cutting and grating the cheese – so my twin sister Maria and I would usually disappear until it was time to break an egg, stir the magic mixture or better yet take the taste test….that was the best job of all. I remember my dad going into the basement to get the giant wheel of Sardo Argentine cheese and carrying it up to the kitchen – like the prized box of gold (or whatever) in Pulp Fiction. He would cut a generous triangle of this special cheese and wrap it up tightly until the next time. My mother will inevitably tell him to “not be stingy, leave the cheese in the kitchen, we’d probably need more” but dad would be confident in his measurement and trudge back downstairs to our “overflow refrigerator” with the wheel.
There was no using a food processor back then in my house (so consequently I don’t even own one today), my dad and brothers would grate this cheese ever so finely – by hand. With a little Parmesan Reggiano thrown in as well, there’d be four to five cups of cheese in all.
After straining the meat (and saving the broth for later use) my mother would hand chop the meat until it was almost a paste. Her speed and confidence in this messy but important step astounds me today when I painstakingly chop my meat – careful not to cut a finger off every time! The bones are discarded and now the mixture can be made.
A key ingredient is nutmeg and with only 1½- 2 tablespoons, the flavor is profound. No bottle of nutmeg for my mother, I remember her grating the little whole nutmeg seeds until her fingers were raw. Two cups of breadcrumbs, an egg, all that glorious cheese and some of the reserved pork liquid make up the rest of the mix. Maria and I would taste the flavorful paste over and over until our stomachs hurt and my father yelled to “knock it off before he made us start over”! The mixture would go in the fridge for a few hours or the next day when it would be time to build the little “belly buttons” (the exact English translation of tortellini).
Starting with a mound of flour – about 3 ½ – 4 cups – my father would use his fist to make a well in the top creating a volcano for the eggs to perch. 4 eggs would get cracked right into the top of the volcano – this was always my job. A dash of salt and then dad would beat the eggs, adding a little flour as he went before kneading the mixture into a beautiful yellow round. It’s sort of magic when it happens, when the flour and egg turns into dough. One minute it’s a goopy mess and the next it’s a smooth textured thing of beauty. The ball is covered with a towel and put aside to rest for about an hour while my siblings and me set the stage for “the build”.
It was always a very specific set up in my house with my mother’s old hand crank pasta machine, cutting boards, cookie sheets, bed sheets (for drying the “hats”), a bowl of egg wash and of course, the meat. The good news with a family of nine is that we could create our very own assembly line to build and that we did. My dad would inevitably put on a Frank Sinatra album and the work would begin.
My father was always very particular about the thickness of the dough – six times through the machine, sometimes even eight and then the rolling pin. To him this stage was critical and I have discovered in my own interpretation today, that he was right. Mom would cut the tissue paper thin lengths into little squares on the cutting boards, Adele and Jeanne usually rolled the little balls from the magic meat and placed them on each square…the rest of us (Annette, Les, Bobby, Maria and me) would put a little egg wash on the corners of each square and then we’d create 200 of these “belly buttons” out of this one batch of dough. Folding each square corner to corner to create a triangle and then folding and sealing two of those corners is the way it’s done and dad never wanted to see a variation on that visual…he was a perfectionist when it came to the shape – said it didn’t taste the same if we, say, made a square purse or simple meat blob as sometimes is the case in my family today. I’m not sure I can agree with this taste logic BUT I will tell you that I respect the desire to have it be done right. Consistency in food, bite size pieces floating in the broth, the beauty of the plate and comfort of the palette all are better served when each morsel is made with this kind of love and care.
The time spent with my family during the long process of creating this food – let alone learning all of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits – is a very deep and visceral memory for me. It is a memory that I have tried to bring into my present day life so that my daughter will have some form of that experience and memory when she is able to lead the charge and create the table.
Oh and the rest of that reserved pork liquid, I add it to my chicken broth to give it an added layer of loveliness. I don’t think my parents did that…that’ll be my contribution to the family tradition.