by Licia Canton
It wasn’t her choice to come to Canada fifty years ago. Like many others of her generation, she left a rural setting to follow a man to a distant metropolis. No doubt, she would have preferred to not live in a small basement apartment in a cold city where she didn’t have friends and didn’t speak the language. For forty years she worked in a wholesale meat plant with men who were stronger but less efficient than she. Even during the summer she wore steel-toe boots, cotton-covered steel-mesh gloves, a hairnet under a hard hat and a woolen winter sweater under her white butcher coat to keep warm in the refrigerated workplace. She might have preferred tilling the soil under the Venetian sun as she had done as a young woman.
In the mid-1970s, before they expanded into a wholesale business, my parents owned a small butcher shop in Montreal-North. On Thursdays and Fridays the store closed at 9 p.m., sometimes even later because customers made it their last stop. They knew that my parents would welcome them even if they were about to close.
When she walked into the house on late winter nights, my mother took her boots off and went into the kitchen to put on a pot (of water for pasta or broth for soup). Only afterwards did she take off her coat and hang it in the closet.
There wasn’t much time for culinary creativity back then, but my extraordinary mother had the ability to make a great meal with very few ingredients and without much notice. I remember my father bringing home unexpected dinner guests. If she was displeased or upset, it was not noticeable. (I would have been furious, but then I am only ordinary).
In previous posts, I’ve written that my mother taught me to make meat sauce, cooked radicchio and polenta, homemade pasta and guinea hen broth, and her cure-all sbattutino. Her signature salsa di melanzane (eggplant sauce) is the best I’ve ever eaten! (Cook onion in olive oil, add diced green peppers, eggplants and very ripe tomatoes, and simmer for over an hour.) As a child, I ate it like pudding.
Summer days when my sister and I were home from school and our mother was at the butcher shop, she always left a pot on the stove for us. I must have been eleven when I began making eggplant-sauce sandwiches. One hot summer day, I was headed for the library on Belleville St., eating a sandwich as I walked up the hill on Bruxelles St. Before reaching Prieur St., I went back home and made two more sandwiches that would last me all the way to the library. Yes, I was a big eater! And I had an extraordinary mother-cook.
My mother taught me to make pasticcio with homemade pasta, lots of meat sauce and béchamel sauce. For years, that was what we made on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, homecomings). Sometimes she added spinach and made the pasta green. The corners on the top layer of pasta were always crunchy.
Risi e bisi (rice and peas) is a dish from the Veneto region, where my parents come from. It is more of a thick soup than a risotto. No need to add the stock little by little, no need to stir constantly. (Add one chopped onion and one leak to one tablespoon of olive oil and cook gently for five to seven minutes. Add Arborio rice and stir for two minutes. Add pre-heated stock and cook slowly for five minutes; add twice as many peas as rice and cook on low heat for about twelve minutes.)
I’ve always loved my mother’s variations on rice dishes, but she rarely made them because my father preferred pasta. As a child, I liked to eat risi latte (rice cooked in milk instead of stock), but my favourite is still pumpkin risotto. Later on, I learned to make radicchio risotto. Today, asparagus risotto is popular with my kids. To make risotto: sauté a chopped onion in olive oil, add the chopped vegetable and cook a few minutes, then add Arborio rice and stir for two minutes. (My husband adds wine.) Add a ladle of pre-heated stock and cook at medium heat until liquid is absorbed. Keep adding stock one ladle at a time and continue stirring until rice is cooked and the risotto is thick. Remove from heat, add grated Parmesan cheese and a little olive oil, and let sit for two minutes.
Last week, my mother and I prepared my father’s birthday dinner – a special occasion which warranted green pasticcio and eggplant sauce as well as a homemade cake with eighty candles. After all, he will only turn eighty once.
For my mother’s next birthday, I will make her favourite – shrimp risotto.