Over the holidays we created a free Recipe eBook based on entries from many talented food bloggers. The recipes were submitted as part of a contest, and we chose Carole Murko’s “Nana’s Panna Cotta” as our winner for it’s ease of making and supreme deliciousness.
Here is the story behind the recipe, as told by Carole.
Lessons in Cooking and In Life From My Nana
The stove was my Nana’s place. She was always cooking something. I just loved sidling up to her. It was part fascination, part adoration, and part pure joy. Apparently cooking is in one’s DNA and it is certainly in mine.
As I reflect upon cooking and my Nana, it isn’t just one dish or meal that stands out; it is Nana’s place in the heart center of the home. She was the nurturer, the sage, the Matriarch. Food was the direct link to each of our hearts. She knew everyone’s favorite dish and would make certain to prepare it as often as possible.
Being a nurturer is a role I have stepped into. I now understand the joy that Nana experienced. I see how my food brings pleasure to others. Cooking with love is addictive.
Because I grew up in a three-generation household, my cooking memories include both my mom and Nana. I have vivid memories of helping prepare our weeknight dinners. One memory, in particular, stands out as I write this – I was probably 7. We had a gas cooktop. There were 3 burners in use, and I was at the fourth making cream sauce for either creamed broccoli or creamed cauliflower. YUM!!
I would start with butter, add some flour and make sure it was all incorporated. Slowly, I would add milk and finally some cheese. When I was older, I learned I was actually making a roux – funny how that works. That cream sauce, by the way was killer! And the broccoli with cream sauce was oh, so delish! And I still don’t use a recipe.
As a kid, I just did what mommy and Nana did. No fancy words. No recipes. It was all feel, intuition and repetition. Today, it’s all about recipes, lists of ingredients in the order of usage, yields, servings, etc. Somehow mom and Nana knew how to cook without a recipe. And I knew, because they knew.
We turned out so many meals together. Sunday mornings were particularly fun. It was time to prepare our Sunday afternoon dinner, and that meant making meatballs and gravy (code for tomato sauce for Bronx, New York-bred, Italian-Americans). The well-seasoned, old frying pan worked hard.
First Nana would make the meatballs and plop them into the sauce, then she would fry up some pork or sausage for flavor. I loved turning the meatballs and when they were golden on all sides, I got to plop them into the sauce. Nana always saved some sauceless meatballs for dad and baba to eat after church; sort of like an appetizer. It’s what I call an Italian hamburger.
My Nana died on February 7, 1989. I’ll never forget the day. The night before she died I woke with a start – it was like I was beamed from the heavens that her time had come. I told my mom, “You have to call Nana.” Then the phone rang.
Nana and I were close. Not the buddy-buddy close, but this spiritually close, the psychically close – the kind of close that defies description. She was wise. She was thrifty. She was suspicious.
When I was a really little girl, she would pin red ribbons to my undershirt to ward off the evil eye – malocchio. She was suspicious. She told me I was too nice, and people would take advantage of me. I rolled my eyes as all little girls would do and said “Nana, why do you think everyone is bad?” She said, “You need protection. The world isn’t ready for your kindness.”
Now imagine me going to Europe for the first time. She snuck a St. Christopher medal, a rosary, and a small prayer book in my suitcase. When I found the tiny blue plastic case, I smiled and knew Nana would always be with me on my journeys. To this day, my wallet carries that blue plastic case – a reminder of her presence.
She is always with me. At her funeral, I pulled the blue plastic case out of my wallet, and found, for the first time, a note and prayer she had written to me back in 1983. To think I had never really studied this tiny blue plastic treasure was not lost on me. I was not meant to see her note until her death. She let me know she was still with me.
In my more recent years, she shows up all the time.
When shooting my Heirloom Meals Thanksgiving Special, I searched for some of her handwritten recipes. On the day we were photographing the memorabilia, I picked up one of her cookbooks. There was a bookmark sticking out, and I kid you not, the bookmark was the manicotti recipe, in her handwriting, that my mom and I made in the show. My eyes welled up with tears and my smile spread from ear to ear. Nana was with me again.
The stove is now my place. It seems that I now hold court there; doling out morsels of love and relishing the compliments and expressions of delight as my food is devoured by family and friends. There is no greater gift than carrying my Nana’s legacy of love forward.