Nana: A Love Story

Published by Tuesday, September 24, 2019 Permalink 0

by Leo Racicot

Along with an uncanny mastery of seven languages perfected while she was a scholarship student at L’Université de Paris plus a crystalline singing voice that gained her entrée to the finest church choirs in Europe, my Nana brought with her to, of all places, Lowell, Massachusetts, the Egyptian/Syrian cooking she learned as a girl in her native Alexandria. Sudden love for a fellow Egyptian émigré, Ralph, a barber, took Adele away from her academic and musical aspirations.

Egyptian women in market in Aswan

Muslim women in Aswan market, Egypt.

Ralph had an idea that opening his own shop in America, the land of opportunity, would put him and his new bride on roads paved in silver and gold. Before she knew what hit her, Adele (called by everyone Lena) found herself transplanted to a blue-collar town with a blue-collar man. The pair had four children in quick succession, each born two years apart: Mariam (Marie), Helen, George and my mother, Edna, nicknamed “Topsy.” Life and the barbershop landed them if not on Easy Street at least on This is Okay Way until Ralph died suddenly and young of a massive heart attack. My mother was six months old. Nana, unable to work full-time and raise four, small children alone (Lowell, after all, wasn’t Paris), took a job doing piecework in Hub Hosiery, one of the city’s many sweatshops and reluctantly put the kids in Franco American Orphanage where they would remain until they came of age.

Pistachio baklava

Middle Eastern pistachio baklawa or baklava.

By the time I knew her, Nana had left her dashed aspirations and heartbreak on the curb and gone about the business of “getting on with it.” Perhaps to make a second stab at rearing the children she, herself, had been unable to raise, she and Marie, who stayed single and made a home for her mother and herself, became co-parents to my sister, Diane, and me. We, too, had been orphaned at a very young age, leaving our mother in the same mess her mother had known. I grew up then with all women: my mother, my sister, my aunt, my Nana, the nuns at school. I witnessed firsthand the power of the female ethos, the banding together of women when Fate has removed all men from the picture, to step in and nurture, as individuals and as a group. I loved my women, but Nana I adored. The love life denied her giving to her own children she heaped on Diane and me. A more caring, hospitable, convivial spirit I have never known. And so, this is how, among other facets and aspects of my growing up years, I was exposed to the Syrian/Egyptian kitchen.

Assorted mezze.

Assorted mezze.

I loved being with Nana in her kitchen, watching her cook. We learn so much from watching. An almost pastoral calm would come over her as the small, old bones of her hands deftly tucked the Mahshi (Malfouf) mixture into the cabbage. In a flash, the stuffed wonders would layer up to the brim of the kettle (Nana pronounced it “cuttle”) to be doused with ripe, good garden tomatoes, homemade tomato sauce, and some water. Even more fun to watch was the way she would fashion a design, using only two turkey needles, into the top of a baked Kibbeh loaf. With the greatest care, too, she placed pine nuts (Snooba) strategically throughout the neat cake (not too many, not too few!). Kibbeh Nayyeh (raw hamburger or lamb) was also a staple of our family table.

People cringe now hearing that we ate raw meat (chased with raw onion). “Cannibals!,” they cry. I don’t know how I, so picky an eater I wouldn’t put a plain slice of American cheese in my mouth, got to love uncooked meat, but I could never get enough of the stuff – one of the treats of going over to my best friend, Anthony Kalil’s house, was the always-waiting Nayyeh on the table – Anthony’s father was a butcher so the house was well-stocked with the very best cuts. I loved the hurry-scurry of Anthony’s three brothers — his poor mom, outnumbered — racing in-and-out of the kitchen on their way to a date, a ballgame, a concert, tearing a piece of Syrian bread (the term, “pita” came into use much, much later on), scooping up a clump of Nayyeh, a bite of onion and chowing down. What with today’s heavy chemical treatment of meats and other No-No’s in meat products, I’m not so sure I would “go raw” now but I can still taste the sting of onion, the salted, peppered meat on my tongue and in my tummy. Good nourishing food.

Never-ending were the delights to be had in Nana’s kitchen. There was Gusa (stuffed zucchini though any squash could be used) with its aromatic garden flavors, bitter to the taste in a good way. Baba Ganoush, a tangy yogurt/eggplant spread, perfect for dipping or eating plain. Nana was never 100% satisfied with her own yogurt. “Is it too tart? A little bit, huh?” There was Makdous, tiny, marinated eggplants sprinkled with walnuts, Fatoush, a fresh lettuce and tomato salad splashed with lemon juice and sumac – a regular visitor to Nana’s table, it made my cheeks pucker. Halami, Halwah (pronounced ‘Ha-lay-wee’), Baklawa, Hummus, Tabouleh, M’jadara (lentil porridge), Za’atar (the best!). How could anyone not leave the table fat and happy?

Egyptian-style stuffed zucchini.

Egyptian-style stuffed zucchini.

Special Sunday trips were to nearby Lawrence and Bishop’s (Aunt Marie at the wheel) where, if the Arabic food wasn’t quite as good as Nana’s, well, “Hey, I’ll take it!” Our friend, Al, the waiter, would bring us extra olive oil, extra mint, extra bread. Al had a genial face. He looked like Abe Burrows and Sam Levenson, popular humorists of the day, and was funny the way they were funny. After feasting, we would go tramping unsavory neighborhoods in search of Melia A’asi, a girlhood friend of Nana’s in Alexandria. Nana knew Melia lived “somewhere in Lawrence.” Melia became somewhat of a legend in family lore. We never did find her. (Interesting aside: years later, after I told M.F.K. Fisher this story, she thought it would be fun to co-write a mystery novel with me, The Case of Missing Melia A’asi. My pseudonym, she decided, would be “Ricochet Raincoat.” Like Melia, though, the book never materialized.) At least Aggie Michael, Nana’s Lowell friend, existed. Nana and I would regularly visit her home peopled with life-sized statues of every saint in the canon. Aggie was a funny, fat, little Buddha with Orphan Annie hair. I liked her, but Nana and I always heeded Marie’s warning, “Don’t ever eat anything there; she cooks spaghetti in the same pan she washes her feet in.”

Nana’s desserts were my favorite. I could eat Ma’moul, the anise-and-date-scented pastries ‘til they came out of my ears. When Anthony and I brought along a paper bag full of them on our choirboys’ field trip to Boston’s Museum of Science, the other kids made throwing up sounds ‘til we passed the tantalizing cookie-cake-y wonders around. Everybody was our friend that day.

My most-loved sweets were Ka’ak, Proustian in its fragrance and its tastes, Turkish Delights, plump with pistachios, homemade Marzipan (not as hard to make as you’d think) and – heaven in a cup – the Egyptian delicacy, Umm Ali, its circus-y colors beckoning you to become a professional glutton.

Baba Ganoush or eggplant purée.

Baba Ganoush or eggplant purée.

I liked few things better than being with my Nana, sitting beside her in her kitchen waiting for everything to cook. I can still hear the good heat bubbling up from oven cups of custard, cinnamon-laced, rice and grape-nut puddings, too, and Knefe and Atayef. My whole boyhood early on was exoticized by almonds, the scent of sesame, strong licorice, black and running out of the corners of my mouth. Nana is teaching me how to make tissue paper carnations, pink. I’m not a very good student. Her chatter is punctuated by delightful Malapropisms, mangling the names of favorite entertainers: Florence Welch (Lawrence Welk), Furry Como (Perry Como), Pranky Pontaine (for Frank Fontaine), Ed Solomont (Ed Sullivan) and the funniest – Alfred Pitchfork (He was a bit of a devil!). We crack each other up; she, correcting my Arabic, I, correcting her English. Nana was petite, her white hair pulled up into a donut at the top of her head (very Marseille market). Nana was an anomaly; raised as an Ottoman Jew in Alexandria, schooled in Paris, she came to the new country equipped with a repertory of Baptist hymns (go figure!). Diane and I, per order of our very Catholic dad, were raised in his faith. So Nana and I would alternate dueling music genres: myself trilling The Angelus, The Kyrie and she, in her sweet, clear soprano intoning the old hymns: In the Garden, The Old, Rugged Cross, Abide with Me. Our songs and our laughter lifted the kitchen curtains high while the food cooked and heaven hovered quiet just over in a corner. I never heard her put on airs. She was plain, without make-up or pretensions. I never heard her speak an unkind word against anyone. She did like to thumb her nose behind Marie’s back whenever Marie criticized her about spoiling Diane and me. “Next thing, they’ll want we should build them their own Taj Mahal.”

Turkish delight or lokum

Turkish delight or lokum.

If there were times whole oceans rose up in her old eyes, well, we knew why; thoughts about a life that might have been. But she never let tears wet her bosom for long – she moved on – in acceptance, in grace, loving her life, her family, her kitchen.

The kitchen and her heart went dark in the year of The Bicentennial. So broken by grief was I, I ran away to avoid the wake. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I keep every day for saying goodbye by firing up the stove for cooking up a cauldron of Koshari, frying up a mess of onions in good olive oil for M’jadara, closing my eyes and conjuring up Nana in her kitchen, persimmons in ceramic bowls, hard candies and oranges and apples for anyone who might drop by. We learn so much from watching. We celebrate the nurturing women in our lives by nurturing ourselves and others. We nourish ourselves. We eat.

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Neapolitan Ragù or Ragù Napolitano

Published by Wednesday, September 4, 2019 Permalink 0

Ragù (or Sugo) di Carne

by Marlena Spieler

Whether it’s Ragù Napolitano “Classico” or “Leggere,”  this richly flavored sauce is a perfect example of traditional, long, slow-cooked (slow, very slow) food, the sort of memory-filled dish that makes all Neapolitans, rich or poor, remember their childhood and nonnas or grandmothers with even just one bite; or even with just one sniff of the bubbling sauce.

Because it needs to be looked after, slowly cooked and attention paid that it doesn’t burn or scorch, it was given the name sugo della guardaporta, the doorkeeper’s sauce, as it needed someone to watch over it as it slowly, slowly, slowly bubbled its way to perfection.

Though now it has come to symbolize family food, it was no doubt created in the 19th-century kitchens by the chefs of aristocratic Naples — its abundance of meat and attention-demanding cooking method would have been beyond the means of the city’s poorer inhabitants, which meant most of the population. Its name came from the French ragout, or saucey stew. The Neapolitan ragù is exactly that: a large piece of meat simmered in either tomatoey or oniony (La Genovese) sauce unlike the ragù of other regions, which include small pieces of chopped meats and vegetables.

San Marzano tomatoes

San Marzano tomatoes.

After unification and the lessening of nobility, food traditions such as gathering for Sunday lunch began to reach everyone’s table, with Nonna cooking for her family, taking over from the chefs who once fed their aristocratic employers.

The ragù takes a long slow simmer — 5-6 hours is optimal; mothers and grannies used to awaken at the crack of dawn to put on the ragù. If you don’t have time to cook it uninterrupted for such a long stretch of time, that is fine too: it is accepted that you can simmer it the first day, simmer it the second day, take the meat off the bones and serve it all on the third day.

Main ingredients for Ragù Napolitano.

Main ingredients for Ragù Napolitano.

Or, you can cook it a few hours, let it rest in the refrigerator overnight, and the next day simmer it again (though it might need a little water to loosen it up for further cooking). It just gets better as it sits, and as it cooks (add a little extra water, broth, or wine, to keep it from sticking or burning on the bottom).

Traditional Ragù Napoletano is served in two courses: the meat is removed from the sauce and saved for the main course, to eat with salad, or potatoes or vegetables; the sauce, well, the sauce is to go on the pasta! Bellissima!

Il Ragù Napolitano

Unlike many of the other ragùs — especially in the north — where meat is finely chopped or even ground together cooking with wine and stock to become the sauce itself, in Campania, il ragù is quite different.

Here, it is a tomato sauce, full of meaty essence (because a large chunk of meat, such as brisket, or eye of round, or pork roast, is cooked in the sauce for hours and hours and hours) but not chunky like a northern ragù (or sugo as it is sometimes called). The meat gives a huge umami layering to the sauce, then is taken out and eaten as a second course or saved for the next day’s dinner; the sauce is tossed with pasta, and eaten for Sunday lunch!  Sometimes small slices of the meat are served on top.

Pacchieri with Ragù Napolitano and Meat Slices.

Pacchieri with Ragù Napolitano and Meat Slices.


The ragù itself remains a tomato and wine sauce made super savory with the juices of whichever meats have simmered in it. Its frugality: two courses for effort and cost of one.

At a seminar-gathering of chefs, this is the dish that had all of our fancy chefs in their tall white toques scurrying about with their forks, while gloriously fashionable Neapolitans had their forks out too; everyone was excited.

The sauce was pre-cooked — one of the chefs pointed out that “one would need three days plus a ‘nonna’ to cook a proper ragù,” so we didn’t get a recipe. The nonna part is because ragù is a dish made every week, and nonna learns from her mother, and each week she makes it and it becomes better each time she does, until it is so traditional and perfect; oh and also: she is making that sauce with a heart full of love for those she feeds.

Basically a rich red-brown tomato-meat sauce that has simmered a big chunk or roast of beef or pork, and a few other small meaty enrichments: a whole fresh sausage or two (especially with fennel), the heel end of a salami, a hunk of pancetta or guanciale, as well as braciola di cotica (cutica, or codica). The last item, pork skin (pork skin braciole, see il secondo chapter) rolled around aromatics is something that I had noted wasn’t included in modern cookbooks or food magazines, specifically American (or U.K.) ones. So, when I saw the rolls of by now-translucent, simmering pork skin, bobbing up and down in the sauce, I asked the chefs what it was and why: “Braciola di cotica“, they answered: “pork skin wrapped around aromatics.” Then they all smiled: “It’s what our nonnas did.”

Paccheri pasta with Neapolitan ragù / ragù napolitano and meat slices.

Paccheri pasta with Neapolitan ragù and meat slices.

The long-simmered sauce has an audio component as well: the sound of the “pippiare,” or the bubbles bursting when they gently reach the top of the sauce; the sauce should be very thick, so the pippiare is a sign that it is getting ready, and also gives you the warning to watch the temperature, monitor the sauce, and be careful the bottom doesn’t burn. A burnt bottom will ruin the entire sauce.

The ragù may take 3 days; Nonna didn’t mind — she was (is) looking forward to feeding her family: The first day to cook and simmer, the second to simmer low, perhaps in the oven, and the third, to sit and relax. Only then, when the meats slip from the bone, the chunk of roast or other meat is butter-tender, and a bit of the pork skin roll melts in your mouth at first bite, only then is the ragù ready.

Bronze-cut Candele pasta. Photo courtesy of Tesoritalia.

Bronze-cut Candele pasta can be broken to the size and shape you require.

















As to the pasta: big thick long tubes, Candele, broken into pieces, Giuseppe di Martino of Pastaficio di Martino and president of Consorzio di Gragnano, explained this local tradition:  “Long ago, purchased dry pasta was made in long big pieces to be broken up as needed: that way you could break it at any size you wished — rigatoni, penne, ziti or other fat shortish tubes — and the broken pieces with their irregular edges gave a variety of textures to the dish as well as helped thicken the sauce.

If Candele are not available, use any pasta shape you like: ragù Napoletano is good with them all; my personal favorite is Paccheri (shown above).

Recipe: Il Ragu “Leggero”

It is called a “light ragu,” because it doesn’t have the array of sausages, smoked meats, and pancetta, that the classico version does, but in reality: it’s still thick and intense, made with a chunk or two of meat, and some rolls of garlic-parsley stuffed pork skin.

How many does it serve? What kind of nonna asks such a question: it makes a nice big potful.


2 onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup or more, olive oil

2 1/2 lbs meat: beef, or pork, or both: brisket, eye of round, pork roast, whatever meat and stewing cut you like. You can use pork ribs with bone, but add more weight since the bones are heavy (but give beautiful taste to the liquid).

1 recipe for pork skin braciole (see below)

1 1/2 or so cups red or white wine, or more as desired

1 large can San Marzano tomatoes, (1 lb 12 oz), whole or chopped, plus their juices

3 cups meat broth (or water plus maybe half a bouillon cube)

Approximately 3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste, or as desired


In a heavy-bottomed big pot, lightly sauté the onions in the olive oil until the onions are softened, then add the roast (or roast and ribs), and a few braciole di cotica, a tablespoon or two of the olive oil, and cook together gently, covered, stirring from time to time, cooking over a low heat for about an hour.

Uncover and pour in a little wine, then raise the heat and let it evaporate, repeating this once or twice, then add the rest of the wine and continue to cook another 15 minutes or so.

Add the canned tomatoes and the broth, then set onto a low heat to simmer. Keep your ears alert: the sound that a good Neapolitan ragù makes while it is cooking properly is a gently bubbling plopping sound. It is said that it “spits,” or “sputters” and is called “pippiare.”

Keep cooking over very low heat, on top of the stove or in the oven, until the meat is very tender, adding more liquid as needed — you might want to add water. 

You can prepare this sauce over 2 days if you like, cooking it, then stashing it in the refrigerator, than cooking it again. Because of the sugar in the tomatoes, the sauce is easily burned towards the end so should be checked frequently. Taste and if the sauce needs freshening, stir in the tomato paste, and if it is too condensed, add a little water, wine or broth.

When the meat is cooked, remove the pork skin from the sauce and set it aside; either discard or chop it for whoever likes to eat it, or for another use. Remove the chunk(s) of meat and set aside for another course or meal, though a small slice on top is very very nice.

Toss the ragù with your pasta of choice, a bit of grated cheese, and a small slice of meat on top, or not, as you like.

Pork Skin Braciole (rolls)

Lay out several slices of pork skin, trimmed of as much fat as you are able. Sprinkle each with chopped garlic and chopped parsley, then roll up and tie tightly.

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