Marie's Kitchen -- Giving thanks for seven courses of Italian cooking


Due to circumstances beyond my control (please don’t ask), this is not a traditional Thanksgiving column. But when you read about Loretta Conti Montone and her family feasts, you will see that this column is all about giving thanks and preparing and sharing delicious food with those you love — and that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

Coastal Point • File photo    : Loretta Conti Montone holds a cookbook she made for family and friends, in the forefront is a delicious Ricotta Pie.Coastal Point • File photo
Loretta Conti Montone holds a cookbook she made for family and friends, in the forefront is a delicious Ricotta Pie.

Loretta grew up in a big Italian family. They ate together every weekend at her grandparents’ home.

“My grandmother prepared the meals,” she said. “Nothing fancy. She put everything on the table at one time. Although she prepared traditional fare that she learned to cook from her mother, she did not serve it in courses. There might be soup, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken cacciatore, brasciole, salad, vegetables and bread.

“We would all sit and eat together. When we were all finished eating, she cleared the table and served dessert, which usually included a tray of her delicious cookies that had also been served as an appetizer before the meal.”

I ask you: When was the last time someone served you cookies as an appetizer? Not in my family.

When Loretta began preparing large Italian meals for family and friends, she divided the meal into courses.

“This is the way my husband and I were served when we traveled to Italy,” she said. “I usually serve antipasti, zuppa, insalata, primo piatte, secondo piatte, terzo piatte and dolce.”

Translations: Antipasti: Italian meats and cheeses, olives, sun-dried peppers, marinated artichokes, crostini. Zuppa: meatball soup. Insalata: arugula salad; Primo piatte: stuffed hot banana peppers. Secondo piatte: ravioli. Terzo piatte: chicken saltimbocca, Romano potatoes, broccolino. Dolce: ricotta pie.

I love eating at Off the Hook restaurant on Route 26 in Bethany Beach. That’s where I met Loretta’s daughter, Blair, who manages the restaurant. When I found out about Loretta’s seven-course Italian meals, I knew that this would be a super column.

Blair told me that when her mother prepares these amazing meals, she keeps a journal of what she served and to whom she served it, so the next time those guests come to dinner, they never eat the same thing twice.

“The record-keeping came into play when I decided that I didn’t want to repeat meals to return visitors,” Loretta said. “There are just too many recipes to make, so why repeat? Except, of course, when it is a holiday meal that is repeated out of tradition,” she added.

Loretta and her husband, whom she refers to by his last name — Montone — moved here eight years ago from Bethlehem, Pa. It seemed only right because, over the years — just as their parents did before them — they brought their children, Brent and Blair, to Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City for summer vacations.

Loretta’s grandmother was the matriarch of her family.

“Cooking was just one of the many things my grandmother taught me over the years,” she said. “I remember standing on a chair to reach the kitchen counter, wearing one of Gram’s aprons, and watching her prepare dishes. She would let me think I was helping her, when most of the time I was just taste-testing — even the raw meatball mixture!”

Loretta’s signature dish is tiramisu.

“Everyone loves my tiramisu,” she said, “but the greatest compliment I have ever received was when my Uncle Bob told me that eating my spaghetti sauce and meatballs was just like being at his mom’s table.”

“One of the most emotional moments of my life was when I walked into a house in my grandmother’s village in Bugnara, Italy,” she said, “and it smelled just like her home in Pittsburgh when she was cooking. The connection was immediate for me and brought tears to my eyes. But before I could say anything, my husband turned to me and said, ‘It smells just like your grandmother’s house.’”

Many of Loretta’s recipes are her grandmother’s. But she has also acquired an extensive collection of Italian cookbooks.

“So, I make many things that my grandmother never even tasted,” she said. “But her Meatball Soup was a tradition on holidays. Some of my cousins who didn’t like turkey on Thanksgiving would eat four or five bowls of Meatball Soup to avoid the turkey because they loved the soup so much,” she said.

When Loretta isn’t cooking Italian, she loves to cook seafood — one of the benefits of living at the beach. Other hobbies include reading, knitting and crochet. She and her husband do a lot of traveling, and her bucket list includes stepping foot on all seven continents. She is also a member of the Lord Baltimore Lioness Club and the Salt Pond Women’s Club.

After her Italy experience, Loretta was prompted to put together a cookbook of her grandmother’s recipes. The front and back covers are a collage of her grandmother’s handwritten recipe cards.

I asked Loretta how she stays so thin.

“Good genes, I guess,” she said. (FYI, Loretta: Those of us with a history of fat genes hate that response.)

On the day I visited Loretta to take her photo, I spent two hours eating — two hours eating! My regret is that I am allergic to chicken (raise your hand if you haven’t heard that 5,000 times already) and she had prepared Chicken Saltimbocca. I was shameful enough to email her ahead of time about how Ricotta Pie was one of my all-time favorites, hoping that she would get my drift and prepare the pie, which she did, so I felt guilty asking her if I could just eat the Saltimbocca filling (prosciutto and cheese).

I asked Loretta how her grandmother’s Meatball Soup differs from Italian Wedding Soup.

“I do make Italian Wedding Soup, which uses chicken broth, vegetables and pasta, but my grandmother’s soup uses beef broth and rice. She boiled a chuck roast and soup bone to make the broth. On the day she prepared the broth, she served the beef roast with carrots and mashed potatoes. The next day, the broth was used to make Meatball Soup,” she said.

My first tasty treat was a generous portion of Meatball Soup.

Meatball Soup

Ingredients for Beef Broth:

? 2-1/2 pounds boneless chuck roast

? 1 soup bone

? 1 pound carrots, roughly chopped

? 6 stalks celery, roughly chopped

? 1 large onion, chopped

? 1 tomato, chopped

? 3/4 pound rice

Ingredients for Meatballs:

? 1-1/2 pounds ground chuck

? 4 to 5 slices bread, shredded into crumbs

? 2 eggs

? 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

Method for Meatball Soup:

Place chuck roast and soup bone in a large soup pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil.

Dump the water and refill the pot with clean water, about 3/4 full. Along with the chuck roast and soup bone, add chopped carrots, celery, onion, and tomato. Bring to a boil once again, then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer for three hours.

Remove the meat, vegetables and soup bone. Drain and reserve the broth.

Combine ground chuck, bread crumbs, eggs and cheese in a large bowl. Roll into tiny meatballs and place on wax paper.

Bring the pot of broth to another boil. Drop meatballs into boiling broth a few at a time. Cover and boil for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the rice. When the rice is cooked, add it to the broth and meatballs and boil for an additional minute or two. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Yield: Approximately 6 quarts or 24 servings.

My second course was Arugula Salad. Readers, this is a recipe that you must add to your repertoire. Her dressing is top notch, but her presentation is one of those things that causes you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

She serves her dressed greens atop a piece of baked Garlic Texas Toast. I had already cleaned my soup bowl. I also cleaned my salad plate. (I sure wish I had her genes!) Every bite of salad comes with a built-in garlic crouton. What a great idea! (I’m using too many exclamation points, but if you had been privileged to be with me for this two-hour feast, you’d be using exclamation points, too.)

Arugula Salad

Ingredients for Salad:

? 4 ounces baby arugula

? 1/4 cup pistachios, shelled and chopped

? 1/2 cup green olives, sliced

? 1 Roma tomato (just the outer flesh in long, thin slices)

? 1/4 cup crumpled gorgonzola cheese

? 4 slices garlic bread

Ingredients for Dressing:

? 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

? 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

? 1 teaspoon wholegrain mustard

? 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Method for Arugula Salad:

Mix arugula, pistachios, olives, tomato and gorgonzola cheese. Whisk olive oil, vinegar, mustard and sugar and drizzle over the salad ingredients. Place one slice of toasted garlic bread on each salad plate and top with salad. Yield: 4 servings.

My third treat was Stuffed Hot Banana Peppers. I love spicy food, so these peppers were the perfect primo piatte (look at me, speaking Italian). “I’ve had difficulty finding the hot peppers,” she said, “so it was a wonderful surprise when I found some at Harris Teeter, just outside of Salt Pond where I live.”

Stuffed Hot Banana Peppers

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Ingredients:

? 12 hot banana peppers

? 1 pound ground veal

? 1/2 cup bread crumbs

? 1 egg

? 1/2 cup Romano cheese

? 2 cloves garlic, minced

? Fresh Italian parsley, chopped

? Salt and pepper to taste

? 2 tablespoons olive oil

? 2 cups spaghetti sauce

Method for Stuffed Hot Banana Peppers:

Wearing cloves for protection from the hot peppers, cut off tops of banana peppers and make a slit down one side to clean out the seeds.

Mix the veal, bread crumbs, egg, Romano cheese, minced garlic and chopped parsley together with your hands. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add a little water for moistness.

Evenly divide the stuffing mixture among the peppers. Oil a baking dish and place the stuffed peppers into the dish. Bake uncovered at 325 degrees for one hour.

Cover the peppers with spaghetti sauce and bake for an additional 30 minutes, also at 325 degrees. Yield: 4 appetizer portions.

Because I couldn’t eat Chicken Saltimbocca (terzo piatte), Loretta gave me a plate of the vegetable she planned to serve alongside — broccolini sautéed in garlic and olive oil. I’ve prepared this twice since my feasting event at Loretta’s, and my husband and I both love it.

After the banana pepper and broccolini (two more clean plates), I skipped to dolce — Ricotta Pie. I admit that it was shameful of me, emailing Loretta about my love of Ricotta Pie. It’s a non-sweet-cheesy treat that suits my palate, and the recipe makes two pies. Lucky, lucky me — she gave me a whole pie to bring home.

Ricotta Pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Ingredients for Crust:

? 3 cups all-purpose flour

? 1/2 cup granulated sugar

? 2 teaspoons baking powder

? 1/2 teaspoon salt

? 3 tablespoons shortening or 1/2 cup butter

? 2 eggs, beaten

Ingredients for Filling:

? 2 pounds ricotta cheese

? 1 cup granulated sugar

? 5 eggs, beaten well

? Juice of 1 lemon

? Grated rind of 1 lemon

? Grated rind of 1 orange

? Maraschino cherries

? Mini chocolate chips

Method for Ricotta Pie Crust:

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Work shortening or butter into the flour mixture; then add eggs. Roll out and line two 9-inch pie pans.

Method for Ricotta Pie Filling:

Cream the ricotta cheese and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the well beaten eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, lemon juice and the grated rinds. Beat until well blended.

Pour this mixture equally into the two pie crusts. Decorate the tops of the pies with maraschino cherries and mini chocolate chips.

Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Yield: 2 pies. If cut generously in six slices per pie (as my grandmother did), you will have enough to serve 12 people. If you slice 8 slices per pie, you will have 16 servings. Top each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.

According to Loretta, Saltimbocca means “jump into the mouth.” I wish her Saltimbocca could have jumped into my mouth, but chicken allergies didn’t allow that. I sensed that her grandmother was smiling down on her. I plan to make this recipe using turkey cutlets instead of chicken. Stay tuned.

Chicken Saltimbocca

Ingredients:

? 4 thin boneless chicken breasts (approximately 1 pound)

? 4 slices prosciutto

? 4 thin slices provolone cheese

? 8 to 10 sage leaves, chopped

? 1 tablespoon olive oil

? 1 medium onion, finely chopped

? 3/4 cup white wine

? 3/4 cup chicken broth

Method for Chicken Saltimbocca:

Place the chicken between sheets of wax paper and pound the meat with a mallet or rolling pin to flatten slightly. Lay one slice of prosciutto and one slice of provolone on each piece of chicken; sprinkle with chopped sage leaves and roll up the chicken breasts; secure with a toothpick.

Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chicken rolls to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes, turning them so they get golden brown all over. Pour the wine and stock into the skillet and simmer for 20 minutes. Yield: 4 servings.

Loretta reserves making ravioli for very special occasions.

“Ravioli takes an entire day,” she said, “so I make sure I do it a day ahead of when I plan to serve it.”

She added that raviolis can be precarious, both in the making and in the cooking. The fresh dough is easily torn, so handle with care.

Ravioli

Ingredients for Dough:

? 8 cups all-purpose flour

? 4 eggs, lightly beaten

? 8 tablespoons oil

? 2 cups lukewarm water

Ingredients for Ravioli Filling:

? 4 pounds ricotta cheese

? 2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks

? 1 cup Romano cheese

? Fresh Italian parsley

? Salt and pepper to taste

Method for Ravioli:

Put flour onto board. Make a well in the center and add eggs, oil and 1 cup water. Gradually mix well, kneading into a soft, smooth dough, adding additional water if necessary.

After kneading for 5 minutes, cover the dough with a bowl and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix all filling ingredients.

Roll out the dough flat and cut out circles using a cutter or the mouth of a glass.

Place a small amount of the ricotta mixture on each circle of dough. Fold over and press edges together using water to help seal. A fork can be used to crimp edges.

Gently drop the raviolis into a large pot of boiling water. When they are done, they float to the top. Carefully remove them from the pot so they don’t break apart. Cover the raviolis with sauce. Yield: About 12 dozen small ravioli. Use 4 to 6 ravioli for a multi-course meal and 12 raviolis per person for a main-course meal.

(Editor’s note: If you have recipes to share, or recipes you want, contact Marie Cook, Coastal Point, P.O. Box 1324, Ocean View, DE 19970; or by email at ChefMarieCook@gmail.com. Please include your phone number. Recipes in this column are not tested by the Coastal Point.)