I am lucky enough to still have a grandma around, Nana Pete is what we call her. She is 90 years old, lives by herself and still manages to cook her own meals. I love talking to her about food, her life and what it was like to raise my mom and her sister back when they didn’t have two nickels to rub together. She had to make everything from scratch. There wasn’t any boxed chicken stock, premade frozen meals back then or take out. She grew her own vegetables in her garden and canned them for the winter. She kept them all in a root cellar. To a 6 year old a cellar is the scary dirt floored basement that smelled like moth balls and kept hundreds of mason jars full of what I thought were preserved snakes and animals.
Her food is amazing. Hands down she has the best tasting spaghetti and meatballs I have ever had. What did she do to that simple pack of ground beef to make it so delicious? And her sauce was perfection. When I started cooking in my 20’s I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn. I would call my mom and ask about recipes my family would make growing up. I would sit with my mouth wide open on the phone when she explained that it would take all afternoon to make the sauce and that I would need to let bread go stale and soak it in milk for the meatballs. What? It can’t be worth it I thought.
Well over the last twenty years of cooking I have come to the conclusion that it is worth it. I am a mom of two daughters now just like my Nana Pete. I am saddened when I spot a grocery cart at the store full of frozen TV dinners and premade junk. Is this how America is eating now? I am fully aware that when you work full time and have children that the thought spending all day making dinner is laughable. It doesn’t take much to make your family a healthy homemade meal. It just takes some planning and thinking like a grandma. Maybe start with once a week making something from scratch and sitting down at the table with your whole family and enjoying their company. Get the whole family involved. Children love to help even if it is just setting the table.
You do not have to use fancy ingredients or have every expensive kitchen gadget. Nana Pete didn’t have any of these things. She uses a small pairing knife to cut everything from fruit to meat to potatoes. She turns inexpensive ingredients like dried beans and tough cuts of meat into meals that would rival four-star restaurants. It just takes a little time and know how.
Here are a few things I have learned from my Nana Pete
1. Don’t use breadcrumbs in your meatballs. It makes them dry. Instead soak stale bread if you have it in milk then squeeze the excess out. This makes the meatballs super moist and delicious.
2. When in doubt make soup. Put any combination of veggies you have on hand (this is perfect for the not so fresh ones sitting in your produce bin that you never got around to using) add some beans maybe some canned tomatoes and perhaps some dried pasta and presto dinner to feed your starving family.
3. If you are on a tight budget (who isn’t right?) Make Potato Pancakes for dinner. Peel and grate baking potatoes on a box grater then squeeze out the excess water. Also grate about half an onion into the potato mixture. Now comes the math. For each large potato you use add 2 tablespoons of flour and one egg. Mix together. Count on one large potato per adult or two children. You can also add salt; pepper or whatever spices your want. Cook in a non-stick skillet with a small amount of vegetable oil just like you would pancakes. They don’t even take that long to cook. Serve with applesauce and sour cream. My kids love these and dinner was under $3 for the entire family.
4. Make Homemade Pasta sauce by the vat. Everyone should have at least one large pot. Make a huge batch of homemade sauce and freeze it in smaller containers. It costs hardly anything to make and doesn’t have any of the added sugar that you get when you buy jarred sauce. You will always have some on hand for quick dinners like Chicken Parmesan or baked ziti or if unexpected company drops over for dinner.
5. Try not to waste anything. My mom and Nana Pete are better at this than I am. I always like to make new things and get tired of eating leftovers all the time but they taught me to look at leftovers as little presents you leave yourself in the freezer. Even if they have just one small portion left they will freeze it and pull it out on a night when they didn’t have time to cook. Who needs lean cuisine when you have this? It would be the perfect thing to take to work and heat up for lunch.
I think the most important thing she has taught me is that in making your own food you are building memories with your family. I want my girls to call me up when they are grown and ask me to give them the recipes for that special chicken dish I always made or how to cook our amazing stuffed cabbage rolls. Maybe they will do the same with their children and I will be the Nana they are talking about. I can hope right?