I've been struggling with this post for a few days now. My thoughts on this subject are all over the map, so I'm not quite sure where the end result is going to take us.
Inge of Vanielje Kitchen and Jeni of A Passionate Palate are hosting a very special event in honor of our mothers and grandmothers and the culinary traditions they've passed along to us. They're calling their event Apples & Thyme.
I'm adding a twist of lime to the mix. Because the person at whose side I learned my family's recipes wasn't a woman. And the women who provided the most significant guidance to me in the kitchen weren't blood relatives.
Allow me to explain...
We've established that while my mother had many talents, cooking wasn't among them. I'm not complaining. Though it's out of the scope of this blog, my mother passed to me her passion for needle arts -- and a sampler created over four generations is one of my most treasured possessions. But for heirloom recipes, I turn primarily to my father and his ancestors.
It is from my father that I learned to make his grandmother's gnocchi. His mother's walnut 'refrigerator cookies'. A tomato sauce derived from the recipes of four generations of northern Italian women from three families united by marriage and based largely on ingredients available in the moment. And his Aunt Lena's recipe for "toothlach" (touvlach? I've googled a million different variations, and I've never found a match) - a chard and ricotta stuffed ravioli that graced every holiday table growing up.
The 'other women' in my culinary education? My parents' closest friends came from all walks of life and on the surface probably didn't have a lot in common. But they all treasured the camaraderie of gathering around the stove and then the kitchen table sharing meals together. Meals made by hand and with love. My father's kitchen was an open kitchen, and each of these women contributed something over the years. They were my 'adopted' mothers and grandmothers, and while most of them have never set foot in my 'adult kitchen', they've all made an indelible impact there.
First there was "Henri". Henriette Corrie entered our lives half way through my fourth grade year, when my brother came down with the chicken pox and needed a daytime companion. Henri had spent the 40's and 50's as a short-order cook in a diner in central California. She taught me a lot about food prep and mise en place (though she never used fancy French words). At her side I learned to peel potatoes and carrots with minimum waste, how to make a perfect gravy from pan drippings, and when you should (and when you shouldn't) substitute milk for cream. That I can slice vegetables without bleeding, I owe to Henri. Her "female spoon" occupies a place of honor among my most used utensils.
And Julie. Julie deserves a post all her own. And she'll likely get one, as I understand that Apples & Thyme is going to be a recurring event. In the context of this discussion, Juliet Rosemont Trissell was a woman with a vision. She was my very first exposure to local, organic, sustainable ingredients. Julie raised chickens (and lots of other animals as well). The eggs from Julie's chickens has a brilliant orange yellow yolk (and sometimes two)... not the pasty-pale color that came from the grocery store. These yolks stood at attention, at least a half an inch above the pool of white in which they sat. And they had F-L-A-V-O-R. Breakfast with Julie was a feast of scrambled eggs, fresh bacon, toast from homemade sourdough bread, fresh squeezed orange juice, and piping hot coffee. It left you warm and full, and ready to take on whatever the day threw your way.
Like the others, Grandma Sylvia isn't really my grandmother... but she is the woman who taught me the most about the cuisine of the Italian half of my heritage. Sylvia Zanaria Gates was born and raised in the bay area to immigrant parents. She taught me how to make pesto and torta di riso, how to shop efficiently and economically at the bakery and the deli, how to pick the freshest rosemary and basil and how to maximize the flavor they contribute. When I moved into my new kitchen seven years ago, Sylvia opened hers... contributing linens, glassware, pasta bowls I reach for every day. And when my pasta dough isn't coming together right, I know I can call her and she'll tell me exactly what I need to do to fix it. And while all of my culinary mentors contributed something to my kitchen's design, Grandma Sylvia is the one who saw it come together (providing advice on the height and surface of my "pasta island") and has watched it in action.
My parents met Maria and Lou early in their married lives, when they occupied neighboring apartments and celebrated weekends together. They resurfaced in my parents lives and entered mine at my first communion celebration -- and remained regulars at dinner on Saturday nights for the next three decades. In terms of technical skill, Maria Chavez Pacheco taught me to make tamales, chiles rellenos and refried beans. She taught me the difference between "stiff peaks" and "soft peaks", and the consequences from choosing the wrong one. She showed me that simple ingredients treated with respect turn out soul-satisfying meals.
As part of the contribution to Apples and Thyme, Jeni and Inge have requested a recipe. I've spent a long time thinking about this one, and I've decided it's time to share the 'touthlach/touvlach' recipe. It's been seven years since my father died. We've made the touvlach several times since then. But never for the open house. This year we're changing that.
I don't know as much as I should of the back story behind this recipe. My great aunt Lena was an Italian immigrant in a small coal mining town in Illinois. I don't know if this is her recipe one from her husband's Belgian ancestors. I do know that she prepared it by hand in celebration of the harvest in the fall, and then again at Easter. I know that she taught my father to form the little pasta pillows. And that from the time we were old enough to understand them, he taught us. That I've made the pasta since I was ten years old, but he kept the filling his secret and Lena's until the Christmas before he died, when our roles reversed and he watched and directed as I prepared the chard mixture and he returned to forming pasta pillows. I know that two of my cousins, Lena's grandchildren, have contacted me looking for the recipe their parents had lost track of. And today I share it with you.
Aunt Lena's Touvlach/Toothlach (Swiss Chard Ravioli)
For the pasta dough:
4 cups all purpose flour
a pinch of salt
Sift flour and salt into a large bowl or onto a pastry board. (I just use a clean counter... this is what we built the island for). Make a well in the center and break in an egg. Use fingers to incorporate egg and flour, maintaining well until 5 eggs are incorporated and you have dough. Knead thoroughly, adding a bit of water or olive oil if necessary to create a smooth, pliable dough. Roll dough into 2-3 balls, wrap in a towel or plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Remove dough from refrigerator 10 minutes before you intend to use it.
For the stuffing:
1 pound chard
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
Clean and wash chard, leaving it slightly damp. Saute with salt over medium heat until tender. Cool the chard, squeeze it dry and chop it finely. Melt the butter in a saute pan. Add chard and cook gently for 3-5 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, parmesan, spinach, saffron and a pinch of nutmeg. Mix thoroughly until well-blended.
To prepare ravioli:
Roll dough into thin sheets. (We use a pasta roller, working gradually to a setting of 5).
Line ravioli form with one sheet of pasta. Fill wells with stuffing, taking care not to over-fill. Top with a second sheet of pasta. use a rolling pin to create ravioli shapes. Remove from form and separate ravioli with a paring knife.
To cook ravioli immediately, bring a pot of moderately salted water to a boil. Drop in ravioli 12-18 at a time. When they float, remove, drain and serve.
To freeze for later, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place ravioli in a single layer on cornmeal. Freeze. Frozen ravioli can be re-packaged into single-serving freezer bags.
John and I are going to tackle these on Thursday night, so look for a photographic play-by-play late next week.
The photograph at the top is a celebration of your heroine's sixth birthday. To my knowledge, it's the first time I was encouraged to actively participate in the creation of the meal. I shelled spring peas and formed 'pasta pillows' for dinner, and cracked the eggs and measured the sugar for the cake.
A year ago we were headed home from the Caribbean.
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