My friends know I like to cook. I’ve had great instruction over the years, and I’ve kept it all with me. I learned a few things by watching my mother when I was a child. She stopped cooking some time around 1983, long before I took up any meaningful activities in the kitchen.
Two people who truly got me started were the mother and grandmother of a friend Fausto from high school. They were Mrs. Falsetta and Mrs. Fazio. I was at their home nearly every day, and I ate so many dinners there that I inevitably wanted to help. Typically, I would take on a task that would not spoil anything, but they explained a lot of things while I watched them at work. I learned from these two wonderful women how to make marinara sauce, how not to overcook pasta, and how to prepare basic salads. Years later, I would reproduce their cutlets and lamb shoulder chops. Mr. Falsetta would sometimes give Fausto and me a half glass of wine each on a Friday. I understood instantly the potential of wine to enhance a meal.
Also, Grandma Fornale would explain a lot when I would wander into the kitchen of her house. I never felt ready to get involved, but years later her daughter, my Aunt Sylvia, took over as chef for family gatherings. Two of her lieutenants, Aunt Margaret and Aunt Tina, scolded me after one Thanksgiving–me being the nearest convenient male–for the fact that the women of the family did all of the work for the holiday while the men all watched football. That was the last family event on my father’s side at which I did not play some role in the kitchen.
And there were the phone calls to Grandma and Aunt Sylvia when I lived in Pennsylvania. “What do I do next?” I would ask while making Eggplant Parmigiana.
Then, there was Madame, the French teacher I met when I began teaching. I would join her for dinner every Wednesday, and she would prepare boeuf bourguignon, poulet rôti, gigot d’agneau, and all manner of traditional French fare. I watched closely, but she always relegated me to tending the fireplace.
Aunt Margaret and Julia Child (regrettably never in person) also taught me how to prepare French food. My favorite dish to make is coq au vin.
And in Italy, my father’s cousin Loretta showed me pollo alla saltimbocca, lasagne al forno, spaghetti alla carbonara, and risotto alla veronese.
Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, I love to cook. I will spend some time this evening with people who mean much to me. Here is a hearty, enjoyable, economical dish I will be making:
Arroz con Cosas
(Rice with Things)
2 cups of rice
1 quart of chicken broth
1 yellow onion
4 cloves of garlic
2 ounces of white wine
8 chorizos (or hot Italian sausages)
8 chicken thighs
8 chicken legs
1 can gandules verdes, or other desired beans (optional)
sliced chili or jalapeno peppers (optional)
fresh string beans in desired amount, cut to desired size
1 can of sliced black olives
poultry seasoning (or dried thyme, sage, and rosemary)
Coat chicken pieces in olive oil with poultry seasoning, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil on low for about 30-45 minutes on each side. The skin should brown deeply, but not burn, and all pieces should be fully cooked. If the sausages are uncooked, include them in the oven as well.
Dice the onion coarsely and fry in olive oil and butter until golden in the biggest pan you can find–five-quart, or even a paella pan (this dish is fun to do on the grill, too). Dice the garlic, and add that at the end. Deglaze with wine.
Add the rice and broth. Stir in some turmeric and distribute everything evenly. If your pan is big enough, place the chicken pieces in a pattern throughout. Slice the sausages and distribute evenly, as well as the beans, peppers, and string beans. Bring the broth to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and continue for 20 to 30 minutes.
You can serve this directly from the pan when it is done. Simply top with the sliced olives.
If you do not have a large enough pan to accommodate everything, you can keep the chicken and sausages warm in the oven and do everything else on the stove. Use a large bowl to serve, arranging the chicken and sausage on top and adding the olives.
This easily serves eight and can be halved or quartered.