As we inch towards the final quarter of the Foodie Reads 2016 Challenge, I cracked the cover on a copy of Not My Mother's Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking Through Stories and Recipes by Rob Chirico.* I received an advance reader's copy through a giveaway and was excited to dig in.
On the Page
I have to be honest - I had a hard time finishing this book. When I was given the choice of books from the giveaway, I immediately chose this one because it involved Italian food. How could I not devour the book? I lived in Italy. I learned to cook in Italy. I'll read just about anything set in Italy and anything that includes Italian fare. Well, there were two reasons that reading the book was agonizing for me.
First, his tone bordered on disdainful towards his mother's lack of culinary skills. The first line of the introduction read, "My mother was an assassin." He continued, "Left to her own devices she laid waste to spaghetti, hamburgers, and even salad. 'Fresh' was not a word she used...."
Here's one particularly brutal assessment of his mother's cooking. "Eventually my otherwise stoic father asked her to stop making the horrific combination of cubed round steak and brown water. He confided to me that it was like eating rubber bathed in a street puddle. This is not being fair to 'brown,' which is indeed a color."
I think he meant to be funny, but how many times do we need to hear that his mother was a terrible cook? I got the picture after the first three times. Humor is difficult to write and I don't think this was as successful has he would have liked - at least not with me.
Still, growing up with awful meals, inspired Chirico to become an accomplished cook. And he truly is that. You can tell that he loves food and enjoys creating beautiful meals. Unfortunately that brings me to the second reason I struggled with this book: it has multiple personality disorder. It's part memoir, part cookbook, part kitchen manual. But the transitions between those aren't seamless. It feels simultaneously forced, stilted, and preachy.
These comments are all really just about the narrative. Regarding the recipes, Chirico writes succinctly and his expertise is evident. So, where I'd give his story a single star - out of five - I'd give his recipes four and a half stars, again out of five.
On the Plate
We are a huge fans of meatballs. So I decided to adapt his recipe for what he described as the gioia di polpette - "the joy of meatballs...." I made mine gluten-free and used pork and beef instead of pork and lamb.
- 1 T olive oil
- 3/4 C onion, peeled and diced
- 1 C gluten-free panko breadcrubms
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 3 T fresh parsley, chopped + more for garnish
- 1 t fresh tarragon, chopped
- 1 C grated cheese (I used a combination of pecorino and parmigiano)
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- freshly ground salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 4 C roasted tomato sauce (my recipe here)
- 1/2 C red wine
- gluten-free flour for dusting
- 1/2 C canola oil
Heat 1 T olive oil in a large, flat-bottom pan. Cook the onions until softened and beginning to turn translucent. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Place all of the ingredients - to the eggs - in a large mixing bowl, including the cooled onions. Mix well, by hand, until everything is well-combined. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Form meat mixture into walnut-sized balls and roll them in flour to coat.
In a large pot, bring tomato sauce and red wine to a simmer.
In the same pot that you cooked the onions, heat 1/2 C canola oil. Brown the meatballs in batches until cooked completely through. Once the meatballs are cooked, place them in the simmering sauce. Simmer together for another 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning as needed and sprinkle with fresh parsley before serving.
Here's what everyone else read in October 2016: here.