I feel a little bit sad for anyone who never had a chance to taste my Grandmother’s cooking. If you had happened by my Grandparents home anytime from the late 60s to mid 90s, chances are you would have found my Grandma in her kitchen, apron on over housedress, preparing what seemed to be an endless array of dishes and nibbles. Nothing she made seemed to be for the purpose of a specific mealtime – you were just as likely to be treated to a mini smorgasbord at 12noon or 4pm – but whatever time it was, you’d better be hungry.
My Grandmother’s recipes were simple, rarely written, and mostly derived from the dishes she had helped my Great-Grandmother prepare years earlier. Italian-American wartime meals, made with ingredients that could stretch the family’s budget – escarole instead of spinach, chicken or pork instead of the beef or lamb that was reserved for holidays, but never skimping on the olive oil. My Grandmother’s recipes had strange names, or often, no real name at all – a favorite dish that was frequently on her table was a sort of savory pasta and cheese cake, made in a rectangular pan, cut into large bite-sized squares to be eaten with your fingers at room temperature. She called it, simply, “Macaroni”. The times when she added small chunks of pepperoni to the dish, she’d refer to it as “Pizza”.
Sadly, my Grandmother’s health has made it impossible for her to cook anymore, nor can she communicate her unwritten recipes and techniques to us. Often, when I am attempting to recreate a recipe, I will close my eyes and try to remember the sights and smells from her kitchen. Lidia Bastianich, my favorite celebrity chef, comes the closest to my Grandmother’s style of cooking, and often Lidia’s instructions will rekindle for me a lesson in cooking technique that my Grandmother taught me years earlier….always salt as you go, toast your spices in hot spots in your pan, and when in doubt, add more oil.
My Grandmother’s Giambotta was always one of my favorites of her recipes, and over the years, I have prepared it many times, both faithful to her recipe, and also with my own interpretations. It’s a recipe that seems so simple, but trust me, it’s a hit. I served a big pot of it a few years back at a Superbowl party, and it went just as quickly as the big pot of beef chili that I had spent many more hours slaving over. In the following recipe, I have given instructions for how I prepared it this particular evening, as vegetables can easily be interchanged in this recipe depending on what’s on hand, and what looks best at the market. The constants, in my opinion, should be the yellow squash, the tomato, and the addition of some kind of starch. My Grandmother would have used potatoes, not chick peas, but my Grandmother loves chick peas, so I think she would approve.
My Grandma’s Giambotta
- 2 leeks, whites only, washed & sliced
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 3-5 cloves chopped garlic
- 1 green zucchini, sliced & quartered
- 1 yellow squash, sliced & quartered
- 2 cups chopped fresh spinach, or other leafy green
- 5 roma tomatoes, canned or fresh, seeded & chopped
- 1 can chick peas (ceci beans, garbanzos), rinsed
- 1 & 1/2 cups water or stock
- 1/4 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
- dried pepperoncini flakes, dried oregano, salt & pepper to taste
In a large stockpot or dutch oven (like my beloved Le Creuset beauty seen here), sautee your onions and leeks over medium heat for 7-8 minutes in about a 1/2 cup of olive oil. Does that sound like too much oil? Just do it.
Move the veggies to the sides of the pan, and create hot spots for your pepperoncino flakes and garlic. Just a minute or two, then stir to incorporate. Have you been salting as you go? If not, add some now.
Now do the same with your dried oregano, which is always more fun when you get to crush the leaves from a full dried plant (bags of these are easy to find in Italian or Greek specialty stores).
Add your zucchini and squash, giving them a few minutes to spend some alone time at the bottom of the pan. Are you still salting?
Do the same with the spinach, and then the tomatoes. Add your liquid, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat and cover. Allow to simmer long enough for vegetables to break apart, but before they get mushy.
15 minutes or so before serving, add the beans and parsley.
For years, I always thought this stew was called “Giam-BaLta”, because that is how my Grandmother pronounced it, or, in true Italian-American style, she would say “Giam-balt”. I tried to describe the dish once to a chef in an Italian restaurant where I waited tables, only to have him tell me that the dish does not exist, and it was only a hodge podge recipe of leftovers from my Grandmother’s kitchen. Happily, a google search produced not only the proper spelling, but a wide variety of variations on the recipe.
Thanks to Ellie from Kitchen Wench for the inspiration to post a nostalgic recipe!