Every so often I read dire predictions about the death of home cooking. And it's true, eating and meals have changed dramatically over the past quarter century. In some ways better, some worse.
Who's got the recipe?
From Tracie Collins: "I was just having a serious craving for the Shrimp Savannah that Garibaldi's (restaurant) used to serve. Any chance someone has the recipe?"
From Elsie Clees of James Island: "I really enjoy the Cracker Barrel, especially on Saturdays when they have their chicken tenders over rice ... and I wonder if any of your readers can come up with this recipe. They usually make it over wild rice now, but they have had it over white rice and both are good. I would even like a similar recipe for this, maybe made with canned soup, which would make it easier to prepare."
But one thing I see consistently: In homes where cooking is valued and nurtured - treated as an art (which it is) - it tends to be passed from generation to generation like a precious family heirloom (which it also is). And other people notice that.
Ann Peebles writes about her friend, Frances Jones, "(She) is a wonderful cook and gracious host. She entertains with aplomb and is always open to new ideas and recipes. However, the thing that sets Frances apart is her Italian lineage and her devotion to keeping the traditions alive for her current family and future generations. ... She grew up learning to make authentic Italian food from her mother and has kept those recipes going."
More about Frances and those traditions:
Name: Frances Messina Jones
Residence: Mount Pleasant
Family: Married for 37 years to John Jones; three sons (Sean married to Katherine, Justin married to Lindsay, and Taylor) and a daughter (Katie engaged to Reed Bjorkman)
Occupation: Owner/designer of a smocking business. I create smocking designs for children's clothes. I have three distributors who sell my designs to fabric shops throughout the country.
Q. You're of Italian heritage and cooking is a big deal in the family. Where did you grow up, and describe an early food memory.
A. My grandparents on both sides are Sicilian. My paternal grandparents were born in Sicily and my maternal great-grandparents were also. I grew up in Beaumont, Texas. When my parents (married 68 years next month) were married, my father insisted that my mother learn to make tomato gravy from his mother, which is the sauce that I learned to make and use today.
Q. Who has been your greatest food influence and in what way?
A. My mother is a fantastic cook. At age 86, she still cooks three meals a day for my 92-year-old dad. When in Texas visiting, I still watch every move she makes in the kitchen. I have learned everything I know about cooking and baking from her. I never see her use a recipe, she just knows how to cook.
Q. You make your own ricotta cheese. Is it hard to do, and how is it different from what you buy in the store?
A. Yes, the ricotta is one thing I had to learn along with tomato gravy before I was allowed to leave home. It is the easiest thing to make and is so much better than you buy in a store because it is fresh. After the liquid drains out of it, it is drier. When my children were babies, my grandmother used to make me give the babies the ricotta water to them in a bottle to help with their digestive system. Did it work? Who knows, but I always did as I was told.
Q. Why do you enjoy cooking?
A. I enjoy cooking the most when I am cooking for my family. Growing up in a family of seven siblings, it is very hard for me to cook for only two people. I tend to make everything in large amounts. There is always enough for extra friends and neighbors when I cook.
Q. Tell us about the Christmas cookies you make.
A. The Christmas cookies I make are the ones I used to help my grandmother and mother make every Christmas. There were always enough to make cookie cans to give away to friends and family. I continue to do that today. The basic dough is a biscotti dough that is used in most of the cookies as a base. If used plain, they are twisted into a shape unique to that kind. When making the Cuccidati (Italian fig cookie), the biscotti dough is used and filled with a fig, fruit and nut mixture. Pizzelles are made using an iron and are thin crisp cookies. A chocolate cookie that is made with spices such as cinnamon, ginger and allspice and shaped like a ball and iced. And of course the cannoli is always made at Christmas. When making this, the base is homemade ricotta cheese.
Q. What is "Pasta Sunday"?
A. When I was growing up, every Sunday after Mass, we went home and had pasta. Sometimes it was with meat sauce and sometimes meatballs. Momma would make the sauce (gravy) on Saturday. She would fry the meatballs and we would enjoy fried meatball sandwiches on Saturday afternoons.
I decided to bring back the tradition of pasta on Sundays by creating "Pasta Sunday." I usually try to change it up. Each week it is a form of pasta but different, like lasagne, manicotti, spaghetti and meat balls or meat sauce, baked ziti or stuffed shells. With today's technology, and our four grown children, (three of whom live in the area), I usually send a text to them and ask who is available for Pasta Sunday. Most of the time, they don't miss it. It's just a way to keep the tradition and have my family all together for dinner.
Q. What is St. Joseph all about?
A. Every year, on March 19, Sicilians honor St. Joseph. Long ago, during the Middle Ages, during a long drought and famine, Sicilians dying of starvation pleaded with St. Joseph, their patron saint, for relief from the terrible famine.
When the rain started, the people rejoiced and to show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they had harvested. They distributed the food to the less fortunate. Today, the Sicilians continue to honor St. Joseph on March 19 by creating altars in their homes and churches.
I have been going to Texas in March for the last six years to work on the altar. St. Anthony's Cathedral Basilica in Beaumont has a huge altar and I have been going to help my mother bake cookies and cook for it. Mom actually starts a few months earlier going every day and making cookies.
My brother, Joseph, from Atlanta and my daughter, Katie, have all been a part of the altar in the past. My particular job is to make the pignolatti. It is made of a dough that is rolled in balls, fried, then a syrup is poured over it. They are shaped into a cone that resembles the pine cones that Jesus played with as a child.
Fig cookies, biscottis, coconut balls, chocolate balls, sesame cookies are all made for the altar by the ladies months in advance.
St. Joseph breads are made into shapes of wheat, lambs and fish.
On the day of St. Joseph's Day, a lunch is served of pasta Milanese, stuffed artichokes, green bean and artichoke casserole, fried fish, cabbage patties and other vegetables. The altar is dressed with cookies, breads, wine, pastas, vegetables, fruits and flowers. At the end of the day, these items are sold and the profit goes to charities.
There are people who are asked to sit on the atlar as saints. These are usually invited to be a saint because they had been ill during the year. It is an honor.
People work for St. Joseph because during the year they may have prayed to St. Joseph for a special intention and in gratitude they work for him.
Manicotti (Stuffed Shells)
For the shells:
1 cup flour
11/2 cups milk
Dash of salt
Mix ingredients well with wire whisk. Pour 1/4 cup of the batter into a heated skillet, swirling to coat bottom of pan. Cook approximately 2 minutes, flip and cook 2 more minutes, similar to making a crepe. Adjust heat as needed so shells do not brown.
1 gallon whole milk
1/2 gallon buttermilk
Pour milk into large pot and cook on medium-low heat until you begin to feel steam, just before the milk comes to a boil. Pour buttermilk in and stir well. DO NOT STIR AGAIN. Cook on low heat approximately 45 minutes. The cheese will begin to curdle to the top and make a layer above the water that has cooked out. When you can lift the cheese away from the side of the pot and it looks like water below it, then skim the ricotta cheese using a slotted spoon. Drain in a colander until dry, about 45 minutes.
NOTE: This sauce can be used for any form of pasta dish; the ricotta can be used in lasagne.
Tomato Gravy (Sauce)
Yield: 5 ½ cups sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 (12-ounce) can tomato paste
3 cans of water (from the tomato paste)
1 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Shredded mozzarella cheese for topping
Chop onion and garlic. Saute in enough olive oil to cover bottom of pot. Add tomato paste. Add water and the next 5 ingredients. Cook on medium low about 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add Parmesan cheese.
To assemble: Fill each shell with equal amounts of cheese. Roll shells up, like a crepe. Lay seam side down, side by side, in a baking dish. Pour sauce over them, covering the whole shell. Top with shredded mozzarella cheese to taste. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.