Food feeds the soul as well as the body. Many years ago, I was traveling in southern Italy with my sister and we spent the night at a hotel in the mountains that was nearly empty, so the staff doted upon us in the dining room. They brought out the specialties of the region, and my sister and I closed our eyes and tasted the meals that had nourished us as children at the tables of our mother and grandmothers. Not the tomato-heavy dishes that most Americans associate with Italian food, but the subtle flavors of garlic and parsley mingled with artichokes, lightly breaded and sautéed chicken, broccoli rabe that had been dressed with an aromatic olive oil. That meal transported us to the oilcloth covered table under the grapevines in my grandmother’s backyard.
When the temperatures here in western New England turn winter-like and predictions of snow fill the weather report, I start to think about soups and stews. One of the staples of my childhood and a favorite among my own children is my mother’s recipe for lentils. It’s aromatic, flavorful and quick!
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium diced onion (1/4 inch)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
½ cup diced carrot (1/4 inch)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups dried lentils (rinsed and checked for debris)
2 cubes Knorr vegetable broth, dissolved in 4 cups water
Saute onion, garlic, and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until soft (about five minutes). Stir constantly.
Add lentils and dried thyme, stirring to blend.
Add vegetable broth and heat to boiling.
Lower heat and cover, cooking for 20-30 minutes until lentils are tender. If too much liquid remains in the pot, uncover the pot and raise the heat to evaporate excess liquid.
Serve with rice.
My mother’s mother lived in the country about 50 miles north of New York City in a stone house built by hand by my mason grandfather. In the summers, we grandchildren would spend extended periods of time with her, swimming in the dammed up brook at the edge of her property and eating at her table under the willow trees. In the winter she would travel south to visit us, staying with each of her children and their families for two or three days. The highlight of our visits to her or her sojourns with us was always her baking. To this day, all my cousins still refer to her signature cookie as “Grandma’s cookie,” and at a recent family reunion, a celebration of more than 90 people spread over four generations, the platter containing 6 dozen of these cookies was emptied within minutes—before any of the other desserts had even been touched.
5 cups flour
1 ¼ cup sugar
6 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/8 cup margarine cut into small bits (¼ inch)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 teaspoon orange extract
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon milk
Sift flour, sugar and baking powder together and make well in center.
Beat eggs together, and then add to well. Cut in margarine. Add extracts. Stir and mix with hands. (Add more flour if dough is sticky.)
Break off small piece of dough and roll it with the palm of the hand to form a 5-inch rod. Form the rod into a knot and place on cookie sheet. Continue until all dough is shaped into knots.
Bake at 350° until lightly golden (about 8-12 minutes).
Brush warm cookies with icing and sprinkle with multicolored sprinkles. Makes about 4 dozen.
One of my favorite comfort foods is broccoli rabe. Like dandelion greens and arugula, it’s an acquired taste (as my husband will attest). But I grew up with these dark and distinctly flavored greens and I love them. They grew in both my grandmothers’ gardens (one in the middle of the city and one in rural upstate New York) and I remember eating them often as a child—plucked fresh, rinsed off under the outside faucet and sauteed quickly in olive oil with slivers of garlic. When my mother was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I flew to Florida on a few hours’ notice to be with her. I returned from the ICU on that first day to her home in Palm Beach Gardens—exhausted, overwhelmed and hungry. Waiting for me was my mother’s sister, Aunt Kay, standing at the stove with wooden spoon in hand. She had cooked up a pot of broccoli rabe—we called them “robbies”—and served them with a loaf of crusty bread. It was exactly what I needed.
Here is how I prepare them:
1 bunch of broccoli rabe
2 large peeled cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 cup water
1/2 cube of vegetable broth
Rinse the broccoli rabe, trim off the stems and chop the leaves and florets into 2-inch pieces.
Film a heavy saucepan with olive oil and heat on medium high. Add the broccoli rabe and stir, coating the greens with the oil.
When the greens are slightly wilted, add the garlic slices and continue to stir for about 1 minute.
Add the water and vegetable cube, stirring to dissolve.
Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, checking to make sure that liquid does not evaporate.
Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.