A few weeks ago my grandmother, who was born in 1918, was admitted to hospital in London having become ill and died not long after. Known to us as Nonna, she was an Italian Jew who endured and survived the calamitous antisemitism, racial legislation and bereavement of World War II. Her wartime stories deserve to be conserved and told, but I will not do so here. This is my food blog, so instead I’m going to honour my grandmother’s memory by sharing her instructions on why you should save your old, rock hard parmesan crusts.
Before I do, a recollection of my final visit to her not long before she died. I flew into London, and a few hours later took the train to the hospital where Nonna was being treated. As I walked up the hill to the hospital a thin rain was falling. On a low wall outside the entrance, a crapulous middle-aged man sat in the cold wearing his hospital pyjamas, a dressing gown and a Russian style furry hat. The stub of an intravenous drip dangled from his wrist as he sucked on a cigarette. Little scraps of paper and plastic blew in circles at his feet.
I met my dad at the entrance, and we went inside. Things got better. The hospital was bright and clean, and I liked the staff very much. They took her comfort very seriously. For instance, one of the most consistent rituals of Nonna’s existence was the aperitif of whisky which she enjoyed before dinner. (I calculated on the back of an envelope that over the course of her life she consumed one thousand, two hundred and thirteen bottles of the stuff.) When the hospital doctor learned of this he demonstrated the manifest superiority of the state-run British healthcare system by offering – and I kid you not – to write her a prescription for Scotch.
I had been warned that she was not in a good state, and – as advertised – her condition showed every day of her 94 years. She was befuddled and practically unable to speak or move, but when I entered the room and said hello she recognized me. This is remarkable partly because of her 94 years, but more because in recent weeks, for reasons which are not entirely clear to anyone including myself, I have grown a beard. In contrast to the nondescript brown hair on my head, it is an irate red colour and looks like a fake beard applied by a cretinous teenager attempting to buy alcohol. In spite of all this, Nonna smiled through her discomfort and confusion and seemed pleased to see me. Then she fell asleep, woke up twenty minutes later, looked at me and this time she croaked “Who are you?” But I didn’t mind. One out of two ain’t bad for someone who was born early in the reign of George V.
While she was sleeping, what was classified as her dinner was rolled in. My grandmother wasn’t a great sight, but it was what lay upon that tray that sent a shiver rattling down my spine.
Dinner was: soup, a shade of orange unknown in nature. Also a bowl of weapons-grade custard. And the centerpiece: a plate of pre-masticated, unrecognizable pink and white stuff covered in a pale ooze which I took for gravy. While I did a “I’m going to be sick” pantomime, my father (a fearsome eater and not easily intimidated by any dish) pivoted at the waist to lean in for a closer look. With his white hair, Savile Row suit and look of intense curiosity on his face, he looked like a distinguished natural historian examining a new yet revolting species for the first time in his long career.
I don’t hold it against anyone that the food was nasty: hospital food is hospital food, and they do the best they can. But throughout her life Nonna had been something of an epicure, and in spite of her discombobulation she was sufficiently compos mentis to find the smell bothersome. We wheeled the tray out.
When I went back the next day, things were a little better. She was more animated and cheerful, and ate a couple of spoons of a panna cotta desert which I’d bought on a whim and a fragment or two of peach. The third day I visited with my sister, and Nonna was in the best form yet. She greeted us with a smile, and I started on a monologue of random small talk: it was unseasonably warm in New York, I said. My boy Jacob – her great grandson – was enjoying his school very much. President Obama is a disappointment, I continued. The night before, I went on, my father and I had shared some foie gras for dinner.
Foie gras. She hadn’t been showing much interest in my prattling, but at the sound of these two syllables her primordial, tiny eyes shifted a little in an expression of recognition and interest. Foie gras had always been amongst her favourite treats. With great effort, she raised her frail arm and touched her thumb to forefinger in the internationally recognized symbol for “excellent” and croaked a verdict on our choice of dish: “Buono.” It was her most decisive and recognizable gesture I saw during my visit.
I returned to New York the next morning to rejoin my wife and son, and Nonna died a few days later. I am very glad I made the visit. I can only hope that as her strength ebbed, whatever fragmentary thoughts floated into her ancient and befuddled consciousness featured not bright yellow custard, but a reminiscence of sumptuous foie gras, cut into neat slices with a knife dipped in very hot water. Yes, I hope this is one of her final thoughts, not the smell of hospital food, and certainly not the mystifying appearance at her bedside of a comical red beard.
Although foie gras was one of her favourite delicacies and she was a very good cook, what came out of her admirably primitive kitchen was generally not elaborate. It was from her that as a youngster I absorbed some of the simplest kitchen tips and easiest of recipes. Here’s one of each.
Tip: save your rock hard parmesan crusts to elevate your minestrone soup from good to great.
Recipe: one of my desert-island peasant dishes, Tonno e Fagiolo (pictured at the top of this page.)
Zuppa di Minestrone
Serves 6 – 8
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
- 1 sprig’s worth of thyme leaves
- 1/2 red chili (optional. Italians don’t do this.)
- A couple of pieces of parmesan crust
- 2 1/2 cups peeled and cubed winter squash (like acorn squash)
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1/2 cup peeled and diced carrots
- 2 1/2 cups cubed potatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 6 cups water
- 1 bouillon cube (beef, chicken)
- couple of threads of saffron
- 4 cups chopped kale
- 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans (15-ounce can, drained)
Warm the oil in a large soup pot on medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and sauté for another minute. Add the parmesan crusts, bouillon cube, squash, celery, carrots, potatoes, oregano, water and saffron and cook for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are almost done. Add the kale and beans and simmer for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the kale is tender and the beans are hot. Discard parmesan crusts. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Tonno e Fagioli
Note: the key thing here is to use the best can of tuna you feel you can justify. You can spend very little on your basic supermarket tin, or rather a lot on those beautiful glass jars of chunky fillets. Unlike some other things in life, what you get really is what you pay for. Secondly, this is one of those dishes which is more about intuition and personal taste than precise measurements. So start with the ingredients below, taste at the end, and add more of what you like/
Serves 4 as an appetizer, or two as a more substantial portion.
- 1 can of tuna in olive oil (see note above)
- 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans (15-ounce can, drained)
- 1/4 onion, diced
- 1/2 garlic clove, crushed or minced
- 1/4 red chili, diced (optional; Italians don’t do this)
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil (though the tuna will already have oil in it, so use your judgement)
- 1 tablespoons of lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest
- Salt and pepper
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- Arrivederci Nonna.
- In defense of the Happy Meal.
- Fish Soup, and why the French are annoying.
- Baking turns me into Woody Allen.
- Tuber Magnatum: worth selling a kidney for?
- Off-piste Italian.
- The silliest meal of my life (followed by a good mushroom recipe)
- Summer’s nearly over. Thank God.
- Prozac, Xanax, Chicken Tikka Masala.
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