Cook of the Month
I was honored and delighted to be featured as The Buffalo News’ “Cook of the Month” for November 2011. As part of the story, I prepared a few of my family’s traditional holiday staples: ravioli stuffed with my special blend of ricotta cheese, tomato sauce and bison meatballs, and struffoli — or honey balls — for dessert. I shared all these recipes with food writer, Andrew Galarneau, so they could be in the newspaper and on buffalonews.com. Click here to see all the photos taken by photographer, Sharon Cantillon.
When Andrew first asked me about unique dishes I make, I told him that we have ravioli as a first course for Thanksgiving dinner, followed by turkey with all the trimmings. I could tell that caught his attention. It is intriguing, I figured, if you didn’t grow up eating it each year like it was standard. As an adult who is always sharing holiday customs, and swapping recipes and entertaining tips with others, I can see now how unusual it is. For many years as a child, I thought everyone made handmade pasta and sauce, in addition to American Thanksgiving dishes and a turkey. I appreciate the time and care my mom and grandma took in making these special holiday meals, in addition to a host of enviable daily meals. I can also understand why they did and still do it, since it is truly one of the most fun meals to make. The collaboration of Italian favorites with our American Thanksgiving spread, which everyone around the table contributes to, cannot be beat. Since we start eating early in the afternoon, it’s almost as if the ravioli and sauce are lunch, and then we dive into Thanksgiving dinner and dessert as the day progresses.
The ravioli recipe I made and shared is almost exactly as my grandma makes them to this day. Her beloved ravioli are the favorite meal item at every Thanksgiving dinner, as well as many Easter dinners and any other special day we can savor them. When I was a sophomore in college, I made the Thanksgiving ravioli with my grandma for the first time. It was around then that I took even more interest in cooking family recipes and trying new ones. Prior to that, I was a novice baking whizz in the kitchen, but didn’t make many savory dishes on my own. Below is a photo with my mom and me in my grandma’s kitchen when I first helped her make the ravioli for our meal.
With grandma’s ravioli, our sauce recipe is a must. With a blend of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, plus a hint of garlic and onion in olive oil, our sauce is of the slow simmer variety. It sits on the stove all day, which makes it perfect for Sundays. You can find the meatball recipe with the sauce recipe because the two go hand in hand. We also add sausage to ours for some extra flavor. We grew up with at least meatballs plus one other meat in mom’s sauce — sausage, spare ribs or even chicken. We have eaten Sunday sauce and pasta on about 99% of Sundays since I was born, plus every major holiday. It’s a weekly family tradition that we all cherish. Once we were adults and living outside of mom and dad’s house, the Sunday sauce tradition had an added bonus: it was the perfect way to ensure we all saw each other and sat down for an amazing meal together at least once a week. Over the years, my brothers and I were always excited to inaugurate our best friends and significant others into the tradition. My parents always let us invite as many people as we wanted for Sunday dinner, and I never met a soul who didn’t love it. Two major great things about a pot of sauce — it always pleases even the pickiest of palates, and it is enough to feed a crowd or have yummy leftovers during the week. Below is a photo of my grandma keeping vigil over the ravioli, while my mom and aunt add more to another pot.
Struffoli are a Neapolitan dessert that I enjoyed eating since I was a kid in my grandma’s kitchen. Leading up to holidays, I would ask her, “Gram, are you making the honey balls??” And, of course, she always did. I vividly remember the glass serving piece she used to store them in the kitchen while she was busy finishing the other parts of dinner. I would reach in and grab them, eating them one by one, and licking the honey off my fingers. She didn’t care at all. She would tell me to eat more! (But of course — she’s an Italian grandmother!) She presented her struffoli in beautiful little silver sundae cups, but she always let me eat as many as I wanted straight out of the glass serving dish.
I revisited my grandma’s struffoli recipe just this year with my mom, and we added a zing of lemon to the dough because I read a couple recipes last Christmas that had lemon zest or Limoncello in the dough, or both. When we tasted the fragrant fried dough balls (first without the honey, and then again with the honey sauce added), we decided we had a new way of making them. Whenever I make a change to a recipe of my grandma’s, her reaction is always excitement. The ever supportive grandma, she tells me it is a great idea and it’s good to evolve the recipes. So, with my grandma’s nod of approval and my entire family’s content bellies, I made the struffoli with the addition of lemon zest and Limoncello in the dough.
This year marks my third Thanksgiving at our home. My grandma expertly hosted Thanksgiving up until a few years ago when she graciously passed the torch to me on hosting this holiday. She taught me how to put together an impressive spread, and my mom passed along many tricks for how to prepare the turkey, dressing, gravy and more. This year we ordered our turkey from Painted Meadows. I prepare it bright and early that morning with all the trimmings, including homemade cranberry sauce and gravy. Each family member brings an appetizer and/or side dish. Our typical sides are dressing, homemade biscuits and bread, roasted root vegetables, mashed potatoes, baked whole sweet potatoes and sweet potato casserole (some like the whole and others like the mashed), and salad. Thanksgiving desserts and coffee comprise our last course. In addition to struffoli, the favorites for this holiday are my mom and grandma’s pie spread, typically apple, pumpkin, banana cream and pecan pies, and my pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust. We always eat roasted chestnuts too. I’m hungry just thinking about all the amazing food to come that day.
It was a pleasure cooking for Andrew and Sharon, and it was a valuable exercise to write out these important recipes. (Believe it or not, I actually had to test all the recipe proportions because these are old family recipes that are largely memorized!)
Thanks to all my blog readers for helping get word out about my blog so I would be on their radar at all! I am truly grateful to have had this fun experience!