While others were drinking green beer, making lamb stew, or boiling the pervasive corned beef and cabbage this week, I ignored all things Irish. My family was never one to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. As Italian Catholics, St. Patrick’s Day was a minor religious holiday in my childhood house, and my proud Italian father couldn’t comprehend how the nation turned it into a festive drinking day celebrating the Irish. This was particularly telling as he was never one to turn down a pint of beer, celebratory or not.
Half the time I forgot to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Not surprising from the girl who brought meatball sandwiches for lunch, but a drag nonetheless as this meant I got pinched all day (a tradition, I am happy to say, that has been abandoned, at least at my daughters’ elementary school). My family just didn’t celebrate the day. We ate a normal dinner — something like pasta with broccoli rabe followed by stuffed peppers. No corned beef for us. My mom just didn’t cook Irish.
Ironically, my dad died on St. Patrick’s Day two years ago. And then the day before the holiday this week, my maternal grandmother passed away. Now, what the nation celebrates as an excuse to drink beer and “get their Irish on” has become a time of reflection for me.
My father and grandmother were different in many ways, but one thing they could always agree on was food. Both were lifelong advocates of the southern Italian table. While my father never lifted a finger in the kitchen (he was a Sicilian male of the old school), he could correctly identify the vast range of regional dishes prepared, including what ingredients were used, and if they were fresh or not. My grandmother, on the other hand, was the quintessential Italian cook. Each day she prepared a Neopolitan dish that had been passed down from generation to generation. She got up around 4:00 a.m. each day, made a pot of coffee, and started cooking. Unfortunately, we were separated by 3,000 miles for most of my life (she in Long Island and me in California), so I didn’t get to hang out with her in the kitchen as much as I would have liked. I have very fond memories of when we were together, however: her busy at the stove, talking with a New York accent sprinkled with Italian, and making the most heavenly dishes.
It was hard to get a recipe out of my grandmother. She was completely disconnected from the idea that food is often made using a list of ingredients with directions. Instead of actual recipes, I would receive a list of instructions that were more subjective than definite. She loved to write recipes (or at least her version of what a recipe is) down on note cards, which were full of comments like “add some milk” or “pinch the dough until it’s right.” It would drive me nuts when I would ask “how much milk?” and she responded “enough,” as if that said it all. But when I was in the midst of making a dish, I found that “enough” was often a better direction than an exact measurement. She and my mom (who hands down recipes just like her mother) taught me to trust my instincts in the kitchen and that the look and feel of a mixture is what’s important. My grandmother’s recipes helped me learn more about technique, color, feel, and texture than any cookbook ever could.
So in honor of my father and grandmother, I made Italian gravy this week. I still can’t tell you how my family makes this dish, although I will tell you how I made the bragiole.
Makes: 6 bragiole
6 pieces of thinly cut beef (either 1/4-inch bottom round slices or flank steak work well)
2 hard-boiled eggs chopped
Minced parsley and garlic (enough to sprinkle on the meat)
Salt and pepper
1. Tenderize the meat so the pieces are nice and thin.
2. Season each piece with salt and pepper and then top with the egg and parsley.
3. Add a little garlic to each piece (not too much, but enough to flavor) and top with some freshly grated cheese.
4. Roll each piece of meat up and place a toothpick in each one so it stays closed.
5. Brown in olive oil and then cook in your gravy.
6. Simmer for at least an hour and serve.