The mothers and daughters of the Bastianich family celebrate a holiday the Italian way
I live just a few blocks away from my mother, Lidia, and my 95-year-old grandmother, Erminia. Lidia’s table has hosted many meals in my lifetime—from when I was a young teenager coming home from school up until now when I might drop off my 12-year-old daughter, Julia, to have a light dinner with my grandmother. Larger celebrations involve the whole family and four generations and are often centered around a particular holiday, such as Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving.
There are also numerous smaller and more intimate moments at the same table with my grandmother and me or my mother, Julia and me. Regardless of the occasion, there is always something to do. My mother typically takes charge at the range; I often do a lot of the prepping and cleaning. My grandmother will shell fava beans, trim asparagus, or cut some of the vegetables going into the meal. Julia is not far behind, helping to prep and taking care of the dessert—her favorite part of the meal. Once we’re sitting at the table, food is discussed and shared, along with family memories, business and home decisions.
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Mother’s Day is a holiday that tends to gather all four generations together. It’s another chance to celebrate the bounties of spring and look forward to a more relaxing summer. We like to prepare dishes that showcase the Italian tradition of vegetables, but that also have a family story to go along with the dish.
The scallion and asparagus salad is a dish that my mother recalls fondly when she talks about her own grandmother, Rosa. One of Lidia’s most vivid and cherished memories involves her foraging for wild asparagus with Rosa as a small child and bringing back the local specialty to share in frittatas, pastas and salads. This more contemporary version of the salad has become a favorite with my family. When the kids were small, they preferred the asparagus to the scallions and eggs but as they grew older, the combination of flavors worked well for them, and now it’s eaten with gusto.
As the daughter of Lidia Bastianich, Tanya Bastianich Manuali enjoyed many trips to Italy as a child. Those trips sparked her passion for the country’s art, culture and food. Armed with a doctorate in Italian Renaissance art from Oxford, she created Experienze Italiane, a custom-touring company devoted to the discovery of Italian food, wine and art. She’s also an executive producer of Tavola productions, is integrally involved in the production of Lidia’s PBS series and is active in the family restaurant business. Lidia’s extensive prepared-food line, including pastas, sauces and fresh meals, is overseen by Tanya and her husband, Corrado Manuali. She has coauthered five cookbooks with her mother and coauthored Healthy Pasta with her brother Joe Bastianich.
Scallion and Asparagus Salad
1½ pounds fresh asparagus
3/4 pound scallions
1 teaspoon salt
3½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper to taste
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
Using a vegetable peeler, shave off the skin from the bottom 3 inches or so of each asparagus stalk, so they cook evenly. Snap off the hard stubs at the bottom—they’ll break naturally at the right point as you bend the bottom of the asparagus. To prepare the scallions, trim the roots and the wilted ends of the green leaves. Peel off the loose layers at the white end, so the scallions are all tight, trim, and about 6-inches long.
Bring one quart of water (or enough to cover the vegetables) to a boil in a wide deep skillet, and add the asparagus and scallions. Adjust the heat to maintain a bubbling boil and poach the vegetables, uncovered, for about 6 minutes, or more, until they are tender but not falling apart and cooked through but not mushy. To check doneness, pick up an asparagus spear by its middle with tongs: it should be a little droopy, but not collapsing.
As soon as they are done, lift out the vegetables with tongs and lay them in a colander (any fat asparagus spears may take a little longer so leave them in a few minutes more). Hold the colander under cold running water to stop the cooking. Drain briefly, then spread on kitchen towels and pat dry, and sprinkle with about ½ teaspoon salt over them.
Slice the asparagus and the scallions into 1-inch lengths and pile them loosely in a mixing bowl. Drizzle the oil and vinegar over the top, and sprinkle on the remaining salt and several grinds of black pepper. Toss well, but don’t break up the vegetables. Quarter the eggs into wedges and slice each wedge into 2 or 3 pieces; scatter these in the bowl and fold in with the vegetables. Taste and adjust the dressing. Chill the salad briefly, then arrange it on a serving platter or on salad plates.
Pasta is always served at our table gatherings, and I have become known for my baked pasta dishes such as the baked rigatoni with zucchini. Since both of my children were small, I always found an affinity for the baked pastas since they work well for a working mom who is always on the go. And of course, leftovers are an absolute plus!
Baked Rigatoni and Zucchini
Serves 6 to 8
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pot
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 pound medium zucchini, sliced
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 loosely packed cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 pound rigatoni
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces shredded Fontina
1 cup grated Grana Padano
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for pasta. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini, and cook until it begins to soften, another 5 minutes. Add the salt then the crushed tomatoes, slosh the tomato can out with 1 cup water, and add it to the skillet as well. Bring the sauce to a boil, and simmer just until it thickens, about 8 to 10 minutes, but don’t let the zucchini begin to fall apart. Then toss in the chopped basil.
Meanwhile, cook the rigatoni until al dente, a few minutes shy of the package directions. Drain the pasta, and toss it in the skillet with the tomato sauce and basil. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a medium bowl, toss together the two cheeses. Spread half the pasta and sauce in the baking dish, and top with half the cheese. Layer the remaining pasta and sauce, then the remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, until browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes.
For the main course, grandma Erminia’s chicken and potatoes is a must on Mother’s Day. She made it for my brother Joe and me when we were kids, and the tradition continues today. The chicken and potatoes are cooked together in a big cast-iron skillet until the chicken is crispy and moist. The secret to preparing the chicken recipe is in caramelizing the chicken and potatoes well on all sides first, then seasoning them well and then adding the onions. Afterward, you can lower the flame, cover the skillet and let the moisture of the chicken, onions and potatoes cook everything throughout. At the end, uncover and let the chicken and potatoes crisp up again. It is by far one of the most requested recipes of all of the grandchildren at the Bastianich table.
Grandma Erminia’s Chicken and Potatoes
For the Basic Chicken and Potatoes:
2½ pounds chicken legs or assorted pieces (bone-in)
½ teaspoon salt and more to taste
½ cup canola oil
1 pound red bliss potatoes, preferably no bigger than 2-inches across
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or more
2 medium-small onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise
2 short branches of fresh rosemary with plenty of needles
For my special touches—try either or both:
4-6 ounces sliced bacon (5 or 6 slices)
1-2 pickled cherry peppers, sweet or hot, or none, or more!—cut in half and seeded Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off excess skin and all visible fat. Cut the drumsticks from the thighs. If using breast halves, cut into 2 small pieces.
Make the bacon roll-ups: cut the bacon slices in half crosswise and roll each strip into a neat, tight cylinder. Stick a toothpick through the roll to secure it; cut or break the toothpick so only a tiny bit sticks out (allowing the bacon to roll around and cook evenly).
Pour the canola oil into a deep skillet and set over high heat. Sprinkle the chicken with half the salt on all sides. When the oil is very hot, lay the pieces skin side down, an inch or so apart—watch out for oil spatters. Don’t crowd the chicken: if necessary you can fry it in batches, cooking similar pieces together.
Drop the bacon rolls into the oil around the chicken, turning and shifting them often. Let the chicken fry in place for several minutes to brown on the underside, then turn and continue frying until they’re golden brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes or more. Fry the breast pieces, only for 5 minutes or so, taking them out of the oil as soon as they are golden. Let the bacon rolls cook and get lightly crisp, but not dark. Adjust the heat to maintain steady sizzling and coloring; remove the crisped chicken pieces with tongs to a bowl.
Meanwhile, rinse and dry the potatoes; slice each one through the middle on the axis that gives the largest cut surface, then toss them with the olive oil and the remaining salt in a bowl.
When all the chicken and bacon is cooked and out of the skillet, pour off the frying oil. Return the skillet to medium heat and put in all the potatoes cut side down in a single layer into the hot pan, pouring the olive oil into the skillet with it. Fry and crisp the potatoes for about 4 minutes to form a crust, then move them around the pan, still cut side down, until they’re all brown and crisp, 7 minutes or more. Turn them over and fry another 2 minutes to cook and crisp on their rounded skin sides.
Keeping the skillet over medium heat, toss the onion wedges and rosemary branches around the pan, in with the potatoes. Return the chicken pieces—except the breast pieces—to the pan, along with the bacon rolls; pour in any chicken juices that have accumulated. Raise the heat slightly, and carefully turn and tumble the chicken, potatoes, onion (and bacon and/or pepper pieces), so they are coated with pan juices, taking care not to break the potato pieces. Spread everything out in the pan—potatoes on the bottom as much as possible, to keep crisping up—and put on the cover.
Lower the heat to medium and cook for about 7 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, then uncover and tumble the pieces and potatoes (and bacon rolls) again. Cover and cook another 7 minutes or so, adding the breast pieces at this point. And give everything another tumble. Now cook covered for 10 minutes more.
Remove the cover, turn the pieces again and cook in the open skillet for about 10 minutes to evaporate the moisture and caramelize everything. Taste a bit of potato (or chicken) for salt and sprinkle on more as needed. Turn the pieces now and then—when they are all glistening and golden, and the potatoes are cooked through, remove the skillet from the stove and—as I do at home—bring it right to the table.
As for traditions, palacinke is the name Lidia knew for the delicious, thin pancakes prepared by her grandmother Rosa. She would whip them up for dinner with marmalade or butter, but for future generations, melted chocolate has become the favorite condiment. In fact, all of the grandchildren just love crepes with chocolate and walnuts. Now that they are older, we enjoy filling, rolling them and eating them faster than they are prepared.
Crêpes with Chocolate and Walnuts
2 cups water
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
8 tablespoons melted butter or more
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
10 ounces excellent bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (12 ounces, or more, for extreme chocolate lovers)
1½ cups walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream, chilled (plus sugar to taste)
To make the batter, whisk together the eggs, water, rum, vanilla, sugar and salt in a large bowl, until well blended. Sift the flour on top, a bit at a time, whisking each addition until smooth. Drizzle in half the melted butter, whisking until the batter has slightly thickened, with the consistency of melted ice cream. Finally, whisk in the lemon zest. Put the remaining butter in a small cup and keep it warm.
Break or chop the chocolate into small pieces and put them a bowl set in a pan of hot (not boiling) water. When the chocolate begins to melt, stir until completely smooth, and keep it warm, in the water, off the heat.
Set the crepe pan or skillet over moderate-high heat until quite hot. Pour in a couple tablespoons of butter, quickly swirl it all over the pan bottom, then pour excess butter back into the cup, leaving the bottom lightly coated with sizzling butter. (If the butter doesn’t sizzle, heat the pan longer before adding the batter). Immediately ladle in a scant 1/3 cup of batter, tilt and swirl so it coats the bottom, and set the pan on the burner.
Lower the heat to medium and cook the palacinka for a little less than a minute, until the underside is lightly browned in a lacy pattern. Flip it over with a spatula and fry for a half minute or longer, until the second side is lightly browned, then remove it to a warm platter. Heat the empty pan briefly, then rapidly coat it with butter, fill it with batter and cook another palacinka. Repeat the sequence, stacking up the finished palacinke on the platter, until all the batter is used up.
Fill and serve the palacinke as soon as possible, while fresh and warm. Keep the platter in a warm spot and cover the stack with a tent of foil or a large bowl turned upside down. Whip the heavy cream, unsweetened or with sugar to taste, to soft peaks. Stir the melted chocolate and reheat it if necessary so it is smooth and warm.
Take one palacinke off the stack and place it with its lacy-patterned side down. Spoon a generous tablespoon (or more) warm chocolate in the center of the pancake and spread it over the palacinke, leaving an inch wide border uncoated. Scatter a spoonful of chopped walnuts on the chocolate layer then fold the round in half, hiding the fillings, and fold again into a plump quarter-round.
Fill and fold all the palacinke the same way. For each serving, place two rounds, overlapping, on a dessert plate, heap some cream on top, scatter some nuts on top of the cream and drizzle warm chocolate in streaks and squiggles over the palacinke and the plate.