It’s impossible each year, to turn the page of the calendar to March without the faces of my paternal grandparents – Gaetano (Tommy) and May (Mary Emma) Rogers springing to mind.
Where custom, faith and tradition are concerned, the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph bring them into clear focus once again as they were when I was a child. He was a rather short and solid Italian-American barber whose family had traded a fine Italian surname – Racioppi – for the “Americanized” Rogers. She was a very petite Irish-American with a knack for cooking in both species which, in my experience, has never been equaled.
To me they will always be the quintessential physical embodiment of what has come to be known in some quarters of New Jersey’s upper shore as “Gaelic and Garlic.”
I remember being so struck by that slogan when it first appeared on tee shirts at an Irish shop in Point Pleasant Beach where the late proprietor – who I believe was a blend of both herself – coined the phrase.
It seemed to capture them perfectly: Grandma with a truly Irish deep sense of devotion to the faith melded perfectly with Grandpa whose Italian nature basked in her glow and prompted him to grow figs and vegetables in the small plot of land at the home in Newark.
Over their bed hung a massive Crucifix – I’m sure by Grandma’s design. The same with the fascinating Infant of Prague all decked out on her night stand along with some of her collection of bibles – she could never turn a bible salesman away without a sale – so much for the old wives’ tale about Catholics of old not reading the bible!
Going to Mass with Grandma in Newark was one of the great joys of my childhood. I recall that she took me to many churches – including St. Antoninus, St. Lucy and Sacred Heart Cathedral where the family had enjoyed looking in on the final stages of its construction.
She wanted to share with me her great joy in and love for the sacred mysteries of the Church and I can’t thank her enough for that.
But like my own mother, I remember Grandma best presiding over her kitchen while Grandpa read or listened to the ballgame in the living room. I recall how the wooden window would be open wide, even in the cool spring air, as steam bellowed forth from pots full of water for pasta and Sunday gravy and how she would make cakes from scratch measuring the ingredients by the handful and the pinch. I see her once again, serving up a warm, rich stew, always with a dose of garlic in recognition of her embrace of Neapolitan cuisine.
And every March, she’s here once again with me in the kitchen as I do my level best to come up with her version of that Irish beef stew for St. Patrick’s Day. She didn’t favor lamb as I recall but opted often for the less expensive chuck, a family favorite for many generations.
On St. Joseph’s day this year, the request is for pasta with breadcrumbs again, but with a twist — Gemelli pasta instead of long spaghetti — and anchovies. Once again, I’ll strive to re-create the dish my dad liked so well though he actually preferred sardines.
Since St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the season of Lent, a period of penance and fasting, traditionally no meat is served. Instead, fish and pasta are staples of the feast. The traditional Sicilian dish – a legacy from my Sicilian great-grandmother – of Spaghetti with anchovies harkens back to St. Joseph, the carpenter and Jesus as fisherman with its ingredients which include breadcrumbs, symbolic of the sawdust in his shop.
Recipe # 1 — May’s Irish Stew adapted from memory with help from the internet
-2 tbs. Olive oil
-3 tbs all purpose flour
– 2 lbs beef chuck cut into 1 ½ inch cubes
-1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
-6 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
-1 large, sweet onion, cut into large chunks
-2 cloves of minced garlic
-2 cups of beef broth
-1 six ounce can tomato paste
-12 fluid ounces can or bottle of Irish stout
-1 tbl cold water
-1 tbl corn starch.
Directions: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Toss beef cubes with flour to coat them and then saute them in a large frying pan until browned. Place the carrots, potatoes, onion and garlic in a large crock pot. Place the meat on top of the vegetables. Mix together the beef broth and tomato paste and pour into the pot along with the stout. Cover and cook on high for six hours or low for eight hours. During the last hour before serving, dissolve the cornstarch in the cold water and then stir in the broth. Simmer on high setting for a few minutes to thicken the brew and then serve.
Anchovies and Pasta San Guiseppe ala Pietro
-1 pound of your favorite pasta, most use spaghetti, but I’m favoring Gemelli twists this year
-4 tablespoons olive oil, divided in half
-2 ounce tin-oil packed anchovies
-8 cloves of garlic, minced
-2 large tomatoes – the ripest available, diced
-ground black pepper to taste
-1/2 cup your favorite breadcrumbs – panko is trending heavily right now
– 1/2 cup grated Romano with extra on the table for serving
Directions: Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water, then drain and return the pasta to the pot. Drizzle the pasta with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, toss, then cover and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large saute pan over medium-high, heat the olive oil. Add the anchovies and saute for 5 minutes, breaking them up with a spatula until they dissolve into a paste. Add the garlic and saute for another minute, then add the tomato. Cook, stirring often, until the tomato begins to break down, about 7 minutes. Season with pepper. For a thinner sauce, stir in a bit of the reserved pasta cooking water.
Uncover the pasta and, while using tongs to toss, sprinkle in the breadcrumbs and Romano cheese, tossing until evenly coated. Divide the pasta between 4 serving bowls, then spoon some of the sauce into the center of each. Top each serving with additional grated Parmesan.