Food Lessons Learned from My Italian Mother-in-Law

My suocera at home.

A is in no way, shape, or form a mammone (ma-mo-neh). What, you may ask, is a mammone? He would be the stereotypical Italian male who is practically attached to his mamma by the umbilical cord. He loves her above all else (at times, including his wife), loves her cooking and her cooking only, and lives a maximum of five minutes away from her his entire life.

Thankfully, the hubs doesn’t meet this description.

Italians are completely aware of the mammone phenomenon, and the self-awareness shows a variety of forms: TV specials, articles, shocking arrests, and of course, jokes.

My excessively devout brother-in-law (as in, he considered going to a seminary and becoming a Catholic priest level of devotion) told me the following:

Q: How do you know that Jesus was Italian?

A: Because he lived with his mother for 33 years, thought he was the son of god, and that his mother was a virgin.

I may be paraphrasing a rough translation…he told me the joke many many years ago.

I should also mention that the said brother in law is 39…and lives at home.

Anyway, as I was saying, A is not a mammone, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his mamma’s cooking. He even dared to say at one time that his mother made a certain dish—risotto—better than I. GASP! The horror! Well, he was right. I mean, she has been perfecting her risotto for about 45 years now, so she’s definitely got the upper hand when it comes to experience. And darn it, I honestly don’t know what she does, but her risotto is just plain awesome. Beyond good.

As any curious cook would, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can from her gazillion years of epicurean stylings in the twelve years that A and I have been married.  Thankfully, my suocera is not the type of person who hordes cooking secrets, or opinions (that one, less thankfully).

She loves it when we visit and I offer to help her out in the kitchen. She has three sons and a daughter, and only the youngest (a son, not A) ever showed any interest in cooking. My best times with her have been in the kitchen, chopping onions, working some dough, grating cheese. We’ll chat, or not, and we work with purpose. There are hungry mouths to be fed. Hungry, opinionated mouths.

I wanted to share some little tidbits that I’ve learned from A’s mom during our time in the cucina. Here they are in no particular order:

  • A few good ingredients can make or break a dish. At the top of that list are home-made broth, grana padano cheese, and olive oil. NB: if it comes in a green can and is not sold in the refrigerator section, it should not be considered cheese.
  • Good home-made broth is NOT made from chicken bones. It is made with a mixture of meat, namely hen and a fatty piece of beef. Since you can’t find hens in the U.S. for broth-making purposes, you can substitute chicken. With meat on the bones. Only the following ingredients should be used in making broth: water, chicken, beef, onions, carrots, celery, and salt. That’s it.
  • You can make a three to five course meal every week for at least ten people without blogging about it.
  • You can use seasonal, all-natural, local ingredients, and make a home-cooked meal for your family for you entire life without blogging about it.
  • Even Italian mammas use bouillon, but only in extreme situations, and never as a substitute for home-made broth in a broth-based dish (especially soup and risotto).
  • You don’t need a recipe to make bread. All you need is practice.
  • You don’t have to make a big production about making risotto. You make the base flavor (mushroom, asparagus, whatever), add rice, add broth (only the good stuff–see above), and stir. Yes, you can put a lid on risotto as you’re cooking it. No, you don’t have to stir it for 30 minutes straight. Yes, it can be a quick weeknight meal.
  • Quick-cooking polenta is a sad substitute for the stuff that takes an hour to cook.
  • Every special occasion is made even more special with a dish involving fresh-made pasta.
  • Don’t you dare make fresh pasta with store-bought eggs. Find a farm, find a friend who has chickens, anything. Just don’t use store-bought eggs to make pasta.
  • Sitting down together to eat as a family is pretty much the best thing you can do.
  • Every meal should end with a piece of cheese and fruit.
So there’s the list. It’s not Michael Pollan, but we try to stick to the basics of it as much as possible.
Although I must confess, I made some chicken-bone broth a few nights ago. Sshhh….just
don’t tell the suocera.
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