Mario Batali has said that if you ask an Italian their favorite place to eat they will probably say their Nonna’s (Grandma’s) house. I couldn’t agree more.
My favorite meal didn’t come from a fancy restaurant with a Michelin star and my favorite chef cannot be found judging a competition on Food Network. That’s because the best food I ever ate was in Madison, New Jersey in my Aunt Flo’s kitchen.
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The plane touched down on a rainy night in an exotic place I would later come to know as the Newark airport. Uncle Stanley was there to meet us and take us back to the house in Madison where he lived with my Aunt Flo and my Great Grandma. Aunt Flo greeted us and of course asked if we were hungry. After dinner, Flo set a large Tupperware container on the table and said we should help ourselves to some cookies. I peered in and, to my delight, found a mountain of cookies. Bathed in icing and covered with sprinkles, the citrus scented cookies were my first introduction to the unfamiliar but addictive flavor of anise. Was it a cake or a cookie? It was the shape of a cookie but had a light and cakey texture. It was sweet but not too sweet – a quintessentially Italian trademark. Over the next few days, I gobbled up most of these delicious cakey cookies – nibbling on them as I sat on the living room floor watching coverage of Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding. And thus began my love affair with anise cookies and my never-ending – but always elusive – quest to replicate Aunt Flo’s baking perfection.
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The next chapter in this culinary tale occurred nearly a decade later. We arrived for our visit and took our place around the kitchen table. Like all Italian nonnas, Flo flew into action. Within what seemed like minutes the table was covered with an assortment of jars containing things I had never seen in my life. I was pretty sure most of the bottles contained vegetables but truthfully I did not have a clue. In retrospect this would be my first introduction to authentic antipasti. Flo returned from her garden with what looked like little flowers and soon we were presented with small friend flowers. I’m a Texan raised on fried okra and fried steak , so fried flowers – why not? It was the first squash blossom I ever tasted – lightly crisp, delicate and not at all greasy. Looking back, this was one of my earliest experiences with simple, traditional, pure cooking based on quality ingredients. It is a philosophy that now guides me on a daily basis. Flo was growing food in her garden and using seasonal ingredients of the highest quality long before the national trend towards sourcing locally emerged. For her, it is simply a way of life.
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Years later, I once again found myself sitting at Aunt Flo’s kitchen table – this time with a cup of coffee, some anise cookies, and a notepad. Flo wrote on her notepad recalling the recipe for pasta fazool and how her brother (my grandpa Gus) liked it. As she spoke, Flo relayed much more than how to mix up a few ingredients. It was a living history – a window to the past that reaches beyond the kitchen and back to previous generations.
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As I write this, Aunt Flo is 91 and still gets around her kitchen quite well. She will no doubt be cooking for her family this Christmas weekend. Her generosity, kindness and warm hospitality embody the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years, Flo encouraged me to practice my cooking and I did. I am now lucky enough to have my sweet husband on this adventure with me. And although I have yet to master that elusive cookie, I will always be up for the next culinary adventure.
Merry Christmas Aunt Flo and thank you (and all the Aunt Flos out there) for being such an inspiration!
Buon Natale e grazie mille a zia Flo!
Con tanto amore,