My real taste of Italy began in America with a gentle coaxing into Nonna’s kitchen the day after I married Michael. Michael, her grandson, had a special place in her heart so teaching me to cook Italian was now a priority. One of the many lessons on the art of “cucina alla casalinga“, home style Italian cooking, was learning Nonna’s recipe for her version of Hunter’s Chicken. She called the dish “stewed chicken with polenta” because the sauce from the chicken was always served over hot polenta.
Like many other recipes to come the measuring of ingredients was always “a occhio“, by eye. In this recipe the amount of wine was “a glass” and the amount of olive oil was “to coat the bottom of the pan”. “What size glass, Nonna, how much olive oil”? She would reply patiently “You know, the small water glass and the pan we always use”.
Italian recipes often have sense of vagueness, referencing phrases like sufficient amount (quanta basta) or cook until done. Color, consistency, feel and aroma are typical benchmarks in Italian cooking. Relying on rough measures, instinct and trusted experience seems slightly out of character to the mechanics of cooking off American recipe cards. But learning how to cook family favorite dishes “a occhio” by watching and helping in the preparation can never be duplicated on the pages of a cookbook or on a computer screen. Something is lost in translation. Because along the way as I learned to cook this dish by watching Nonna and helping in the preparation I began to learn about the background and traditions of her family in the Veneto and her life in Italy and that is the magic and delight of Italian food. Every dish channels the culture and traditions of generational families and brings them forward to be shared at the table.
Now I’m not ready to throw out my OXO measuring cups and spoons and I know measuring your ingredients correctly is the first step to good bread. But there are certain days and certain moments when Nonna’s recipes seem to me to be the perfect way to tell my family how much I care and to honor the traditions and memory of our Italian grandmother.