COVID-19 reminds me everyday to appreciate the simple things in life. Morning coffee with Francesco, walks with our puppy Chloe, talks with family and friends, and celery.
I’m immensely grateful for video calls with mom whether they be for 5 minutes or 3 hours to talk about everything and nothing. Mom is the keeper of our family recipes and history. She is a storyteller with an encyclopedic memory. She’s our family rock, always and forever. Which brings me to our chat about celery.
Wild and cultivated sedano has been used since pre-historic times. It was popular with the ancient Romans despite fennel overshadowing from time to time. In the past, celery leaves were used for medicinal and decorative purposes more often than for cooking. Today it’s rarely used on its own. Instead, it plays a leading role in Italian soffritto, the flavorsome mixture of chopped vegetables which usually includes onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley and often diced lardo or pancetta, and in mirepoix, the French starter of onion + carrot + celery with butter.
Back to conversations and celery.
Every time I visit my parents, mom and I sit for coffee talk at the square heavy wooden kitchen table that was Ma’s––my maternal grandmother––and now lives at my parents. It’s an unsung ritual that I’ve loved since I started drinking coffee decades ago. Coffee talk topics range from ‘what are your plans for the day’ to ‘what are your dreams’ and always include leafing through food magazines and Ma’s hand-written recipes. Mom recounts stories and memories to me about each one aiding in my never ending quest to unearth more about our family through food.
A few years ago these conversations brought us to Roberto’s, the local Sicilian green grocer. While browsing through the piles of seasonal fruit and vegetables, there was a stack of forest green stalks, the underrated vegetable that gives a peppery flavor to dishes and always has a place in my refrigerator.
Mom asked me if I remembered dishes where celery played a part. Most dishes speak to the hardships that immigrants experienced upon reaching the shores of the U.S.A. They were and are inexpensive and nourishing one-pot meals, balanced and complete, made with love. They always have a place in my kitchen, at Mom’s table and in my heart. Thanks for the food and memories, Mom.
Here are 10 dishes that we talked about and that I cherish:
Ma’s bean and potato stew is simply delicious and gluten free. It is one of my comfort foods that brings me to simple times and being nourished by Ma, my maternal grandmother. She had a knack of taking simple ingredients and turning them into the most delectable meals. This one pot dish combines beans, potatoes, cups of diced celery, plenty of celery leaves, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.
Pasta fazul (Pasta and Beans) brings me immediately to Mom’s. Easy and inexpensive, it’s also a nutritious and delicious meal that graces my kitchen year round. Cue borlotti beans, loads of celery, a bit of garlic and tomatoes, EVOO, and pasta.
Chicken, escarole & white bean soup is ugly and delicious. I grew up eating versions that sometimes included pasta and other times rice. It varied based on cravings and what was in the cupboard. The chicken-bean duo make it a protein rich meal while the rice gives extra fuel on a blustery day.
Farro & Bean Soup transports me to winter in Italy, sitting by the fireplace, wrapped in a quilt with a bowl of steamy soup cradled in my hands. Dried borlotti beans or your favorite bean, red and white onions, celery stalks, plum tomatoes and farro melt together. Drizzle with olive oil and top with fresh parsley.
Lentil soup carries me to 1997 when I moved to NYC. It’s winter and I’m talking with Ma. She’s sitting at her telephone table-stand tucked in a corner at the bottom of the staircase. She instructs me in lentil soup making step by step. I love lentils in every form. I love these food memories of my grandmother even more.
Pasta lenticchie (Pasta & Lentils) was a weekly meal at Casa Tringali in Boston. I wonder if Mom knows how well she fed us. Earthy in flavor and quick to cook, they are full of B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron and potassium. Made up of more than 25% protein, they are a fabulous alternative to meat. #foodislove
Caponata (stewed eggplant salad) is summer on the island of Sicily. The trademark Sicilian dish is enjoyed year round but summer is when eggplants are in season. Pull up a chair at a trattoria or a stool at a wine bar with a plate of caponata. The agro-dolce/sour-sweet goodness is enjoyed as an appetizer, side dish or I love it as a main course smothered over crostini.
Broth, Chicken and Beef are fundamental to many dishes in my home and loaded with nutrients. They add depths of flavor to risotto, soups and sauces. We sometimes sip on a hot cup of clear broth on chilly days as drinking bone broth may be beneficial for the joints and digestive system, is highly nutritious and tasty.
Beef Barley Stew warms me to the bone. I’m sitting at Ma and Pa’s table (my maternal grandparents), wrapped in Ma’s indigo blue cardigan that I borrowed from her when it was cold. Stew meat, garlic, tomato, celery, onion, basil, and barley. Add a vegetable medley that you like for a balanced economical dinner.
Pasta e Ceci (pasta & chickpeas) was another weekly contender in the Tringali household. Hats off to Mamma again. Nutty tasting, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, chickpeas are touted to have health benefits such as improving digestion and appetite suppression and reducing the risk of diseases. They pack a protein punch and make an excellent meat replacement.