Giulia cooked in the same way that she used her healing powers–with intensity, with passion and with generosity. Whether she was rolling out pasta dough to a paper-thin layer that would lift if you blew under it or preparing hearty meals of sausage and peppers for the working men who frequented the Palace of Dreams, cooking was was her art, her refuge and her survival.
When Giulia first meets Paolo, she is a newly arrived immigrant living with two of her sisters, her older brother and his wife. The women of the household are performing a time-honored end-of-summer ritual, preserving the bounty of ripe eggplants, As Giulia describes, “Like Paolo’s mother in Napoli, like our aunts up in the hills, we were slicing and salting, laying up melanzane in big crocks…” The scene is one I remember vividly from my own childhood, when my mother, my grandmother and my aunts would gather together in August and turn eggplant into the basis for winter’s antipasto. I found the following recipe among the family favorites my mother had left for me.
2 quarts cider vinegar
4-5 red and green long Italian hot peppers, chopped into small dice
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
4 sterilized half-pint mason jars
Peel eggplant. Cut in half lengthwise, then in quarters.
Slice into thin strips about 3/8” wide.
Layer strips in a non-metallic bowl, salting each layer.
Place a flat plate that fits inside the bowl on top of the eggplant and put a heavy object on top of the plate as a weight.
Allow to sit for 3 hours.
Drain the liquid from the bowl and squeeze the eggplant strips to remove as much liquid as possible. My mother used a potato press.
Place the eggplant back in the bowl and cover with cider vinegar. Weigh the eggplant down again with the plate and heavy object.
Soak the eggplant in the vinegar for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Drain the vinegar from the bowl and squeeze the eggplant strips again.
Mix the squeezed eggplant with the hot peppers, garlic and enough olive oil to combine well.
Fill mason jars with eggplant mixture. Before sealing, leave enough room at the top to add olive oil to completely cover the eggplant.
Cover with lids and rims that have been simmered in hot water.
Let rest for at least one week before using, storing the jars in a co ol, dark place. After opening a jar, store in the refrigerator.
Serve as part of an antipasto platter.
St. Joseph Cream Puffs
On my father’s side of the family it was my Aunt Susie who was the renowned baker. She had a separate kitchen in the basement of her house where she produced her confections. For my wedding, which was held at home, she prepared an elegant platter with dozens of different cookies and pastries, bursting with the flavors of anise and hazelnuts and almonds and pignoli. Her repertoire was extensive and imaginative and grew to incorporate “American” sweets such as chocolate chip cookies. But one of the traditional pastries that she made on special occasions—and always on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph—was her light-as-air cream puffs, just as Giulia made them for Salvatore when he came to court her in Dancing on Sunday Afternoons.
1 cup water
½ cup butter
Pinch of salt
1 cup sifted flour
15-ounce container of ricotta cheese
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon grated orange rind
Bring water, butter and salt to a rolling boil in a saucepan. Lower heat and add flour all at once, stirring vigorously until mixture pulls away from sides of pan (about 1 minute). Remove from heat and cool until mixture is lukewarm (about 10 minutes).
Beat in eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition until dough is smooth. Drop by the teaspoonful on lightly greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
Bake at 450° for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 300° and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more until puffed and golden.
Blend together filling ingredients. When puffs are cool, make a slit on one side of each puff and fill with ricotta mixture. Makes about 4 dozen.