My grandma couldn’t cook. This may come as a shock to anyone who’s watched me prepare, order or eat a meal, since by most accounts I resemble a jaded nonna in those moments, but it’s true. Her kids and grandkids with especially generous palates may object (I can already hear the 30+ member family group chat clamoring in protest), but in my humble opinion, Patricia Guerriero was a decidedly lousy cook.
To be clear, it’s not that she didn’t cook. She had dinner ready every night for her husband, five kids, and any number of baseball teammates, boyfriends and wild animals that happened to join them. She later played a large part in raising her dozen or so grandchildren, which entailed plenty of hastily assembled weeknight dinners when one parent or another got caught up at work.
And I’d be remiss not to mention her iconic Christmas Eves. Grandma Pat bounced around between her five kids in the 12 years between her youngest son’s wedding and her death last year, but Christmas Eve was always her holiday, and we’d gather wherever she happened to be living for that most extravagant of Italian-American celebrations.
But although food was as much a love language as a necessary skill in her life, she never quite mastered it. I’ve heard horror stories of her various culinary phases, the most harrowing of which was her fateful stew stage.
Tough cuts of beef, Heinz Homestyle Gravy, frozen peas and canned potatoes (yes, that’s a thing) were hardly warmed on the stove before arriving at the table. And if it didn’t end up in your mouth, it was going to land on your head — really.
My own most vivid Grandma food memory involved a plate of pancakes. What could go wrong? Plenty. She barely stirred together Bisquick (not the instant kind) with tap water before dolloping the batter onto a pan that could have melted the stainless steel sink had she not run water over it. I can still taste that acrid, desiccated starch shield today.
In the 10 months or so since she died, I’ve had time (perhaps more than I’d like) to decide how I want to remember my grandmother. As an Italian American working in the culinary sphere, most people assume I have stories of an impossibly wrinkled nonna mumbling in dialect over massive vats of Sunday sauce and wielding a wooden spoon as the ultimate grandchild-tamer. Of course, I don’t.
But truthfully, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I can’t romanticize my grandmother in such a light. I can’t pigeonhole her into this provincial, antiquated stereotype and reduce her to a one-dimensional supporting character in her family’s story. Instead, I’m more than happy to know her as a whole person, one who pronounced her love and dispensed her strength through infinite media.
My grandmother was the daughter of immigrants. She grew up almost fatherless, since her dad spent a decade “at college” (got it?) before she turned 18.
With no higher education of her own, she raised five kids and sent most of them off to school. After her husband died when he was 52, she insistently kept her family close and saw the birth of over a dozen grandkids and the weddings of all of her children. She died well before her time, only 71 years old, but fought her illness viciously in a characteristic defiance of anything that kept her between her and her family.
I already wrote an obituary, and it doesn’t quite feel right to do so again. Instead, I’ll leave you with the one diamond in the rough of her kitchen: her recipe for pasta e fagioli.
It’s an absurdly simple Campanian recipe, as opposed to the Tuscan-ish renditions I’ve seen popping up online. You can throw it together in under an hour with mostly ingredients you at least should have in your pantry. Make it this weekend and tell your grandma you love her.
Pasta e fagioli
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 inches of the end of a prosciutto, diced (optional)
1 small yellow onion, diced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 14-oz can cannellini beans
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Fresh-cracked black pepper
One pound ditalini or elbow pasta
Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. If using, add the diced prosciutto and sautée until it has taken on some color but is not dried out, about five minutes. Add the onions, along with a pinch of salt, and cook until they’ve turned translucent, about five minutes. Then, add the garlic and sautée until fragrant, about one minute.
Pour in the beans (along with their liquid) and stir to incorporate, being sure to gently scrape any meat or vegetables from the bottom. Use your hands to crush each tomato over the pot, then incorporate them along with the juices from the can. Add the bay leaves and season aggressively with black pepper. Allow the stew to simmer, covered, for at least 20 but no longer than 30 minutes (you want to cook out the raw tomato flavor but don’t want to overcook the beans). If you like it a little more soupy, add some water or stock to thin it out.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a roiling boil. Salt it heavily before adding the pasta and cooking for half the time the box recommends. Strain the pasta (but don’t rinse or oil it) before adding it to the stew. Cook it all together until the pasta is al dente. Serve the stew in shallow bowls with a healthy grating of Pecorino Romano or another sharp, hard Italian cheese.