Although I run a food blog, I was not always the main family cook. Whilst our children were growing up (or still at home), Mrs WDC and her mother (Nonna) did most of the family cooking. As with all young working families, balancing the demands of cooking, work, shopping, children’s welfare, school and activities, as well as the upkeep of a busy house was a challenge. But we always had food on our table, and whoever cooked, we always ate well and enjoyed a balanced and diverse diet.
Mrs WDC and her mother are of Italian descent, so there was a strong Italian influence on our family cooking. In Italy the family is central to the art of cooking, as it is in our family – food was always cooked and shared with love. For the most part we sat together at the table and enjoyed the opportunity to chat, comforting body and soul with nutritious and sustaining meals.
We brought up our family on tight budgets which can put a strain on cooking, but in fact the Italian way with food does not rely on many – or expensive – ingredients, so we always felt lucky and grateful for the food that was served.
Among the hundreds and hundreds of dishes produced many were repeated and became family favourites. We’d love to hear what your family favourites are, please leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
10. Liver and bacon
This was a staple of our family. I think the idea was that liver was good for you, but there may have been Nonna’s post-war memories of rationing at play as well. Certainly, liver was not expensive.
We always cooked with lamb’s liver, and although strictly offal, no one ever considered it to be odd to eat. Often, after a long commute, my liver may have toughened a little on reheating, but I always liked the flavour combination. Indeed, we still eat liver and bacon, but tend to use English calves liver or chicken liver instead of lamb.
Modern tastes may have changed and these days, I doubt many households eat much liver and bacon.
9. Spare ribs
Spare ribs were a very cheap cut of meat in the days before they became popularised by the Bob Payton’s Chicago Rib Shack or TV chef Ken Hom’s five-spice sticky specials. As Payton understood, Americans love putting whole racks of ribs on the barbecue, which is something we often did for our al fresco summer gatherings in the garden.
However, Mrs WDC’s ribs were the opposite of Payton & Hom’s high-octane ribs – hers were slow braised in a light liquid with a hint of tomato and onion and perhaps a few gratings of garlic (Mrs WDC and Nonna’s use of garlic was always quite restrained).
The trick was to allow some parts to brown, but to ensure there was enough liquid for mopping up with plain rice and crusty bread.
8. French toast, pancakes and waffles
These are my American influence, not only are each a breakfast favourite for my parents’ family, they soon became favourites in our family.
Despite its French origins (pain perdue), not many people in the UK made French toast, although some forms of British ‘eggy bread’ may have had a close resemblance. I did notice that French toast became more popular after Dustin Hoffman’s escapades with the recipe in Krammer Vs. Krammer (1979).
French toast was the first recipe I ever learned – 1 cup of milk to one large egg – but whatever proportions are used, the secret to French toast is lots of melted butter and lashings of maple syrup. If we ran out of syrup, icing sugar was a good substitute. Happily, our children never developed sweet teeth!
We may have eaten French toast during the week, but pancakes and waffles were for the weekend.
We never winged the recipe, but religiously adhered to the authentic Fannie Farmer original – incontestably the best. We should have had the recipe inscribed permanently on our kitchen walls, because our poor Fannie Farmer paperback American cookbook slowly began to disintegrate around the griddlecake section. We tried to preserve page 775, the precious page with the pancake recipe, but it eventually vanished into dust. Luckily, this happened about the same time as the arrival of the internet.
The children always helped with the pancake preparations (and cooking) and loved each part of the process (one child assigned to wet ingredients, another the dry…) I think they revelled in the fact that after the first group batch, Dad would stay in the kitchen making pancakes to order.
As in the ‘Pat-a-Cake’ nursery rhyme, the children loved their own ‘baker’s man’ marking their pancakes with the initial of their name. A trick achieved by pouring the batter as a thin stream in the shape of a reversed letter before pouring the batter over the top to form the complete pancake.
Waffles use the same basic recipe, but have the advantage of those little indentations that can hold even more maple syrup than pancakes!
7. Risotto, Sardinian gnocchi and Lasagne
All of these regular favourites have to be included, even if it is making a list of 10 a little lopsided…
The risotto is Mrs WDC’s and the Sardinian gnocchi is Dad’s but adopted for weekday suppers by Mrs WDC. Risotto was always chicken and usually included peas. If there was saffron this was included, but not everyone in the family was keen on the saffron. The risotto was always made in a large Le Crueset, which then was taken to the table, and though it is not supposed to have crusty bits at the bottom, these were actually appreciated and often fought over.
The gnocchi is trick I first saw in An Invitation to Italian Cooking by Antonio Carluccio, the only cookbook I’ve ever cooked recipes from cover to cover. The gnocchi are in fact pasta shapes made by DeCecco, quite small and solid but with little ridged lips on both sides that are reminiscent of the larger potato and flour gnocchi shapes. The style of sauce was new to me at the time and is made from broccoli, over-cooked in milk to render it down into a smooth puree. We might also add bacon or chicken. It’s was good recipe and a children’s favourite.
Lasagne has to be included in the list somewhere. It’s our family’s tradition to have lasagne for special occasions. Although, lasagne in itself does not seem such a particularly fancy dish, by virtue of the time and effort required to make it, it does indeed qualify for its special status. You cannot ‘knock-up’ a lasagne, careful planning is required along with lots of time, extra pairs of hands, and space (the pre-cooked pasta is laid out over tables covered in tea cloths). However, it is also special because the wonder of lasagne is how such simple ingredients can be so delicious – perhaps you can taste the love and care put into its making…
6. Chicken Kiev and chicken pie
These are Nonna’s bought-in standbys: the children loved them. Mrs WDC may have tried to recreate a Kiev from scratch once or twice, but most home cooks concede it’s best to leave such complex constructions to the commercial kitchens of Messrs. Marks & Spencer.
Chicken pies on the other hand, were a doddle for Mrs WDC, and soon became a family regular, served with mashed potato, greens and carrots. The children never grew out of their fondness for pies, and even today, the tradition continues, with special online orders arriving magically at the door. Sweet.
If chicken Kiev was about the garlic butter, the pies were about the pastry. It’s not essential to have pastry every week, but we found that every now helped to increase family happiness.
5. Sunday roast
The roast dinner is perhaps, one of the best examples of English cuisine. The tradition particularly suits family life and becomes a kind of ritualised family celebration. It’s something all families can look forward to after a long hard week at work or school, busy Saturday shopping trips, playing – and watching – sports and then at last when the Sunday morning church goers have returned, the whole family can put their feet up and relax. Well, apart from the cooks who have been buried in vegetable peelings and fat for the best part of a day.
The roast dinner may seem ubiquitous but is surely on everyone’s favourites list. Indeed, the usual portrayal of the pleasures of family life is a picture of a family enjoying a roast dinner around the table.
It doesn’t matter what meat is roasted, however, what is essential is the addition of roast potatoes, roast parsnips (if possible), carrots and greens, but especially Yorkshire puddings (a Mrs WDC’s specialty) and to top it all off, jugs (and more jugs) of hot gravy.
Another English influence. We should say English rather than Indian, because by all accounts the curry is an English adaptation of Indian cooking. The curry is so ingrained into English culture that most families include at least one curry in their cooking repertoire.
So it was in our family. Mrs WDC, armed with Madhur Jaffrey’s classic Indian Cooking cookbook, made many curries, including mushroom and potato curry, Gujarati cabbage and carrot, rogan josh and chicken korma.
Overtime, the recipes veered toward the creamy, milder turmeric-based curries that might include cashews or almonds (always served with naan bread and mango chutney). For family picnics, the same flavour profile became cold Coronation chicken, served as a salad or as filling for sandwiches.
3. Baked potato
There was a time when the family would devour baked potatoes at least once a week. My American contribution to these hot potatoes was soured cream and chives –uncommon ingredients at the time that needed hunting down. Otherwise, the general topping was plenty of butter and mountains of grated cheese.
A topping that soon became a popular was tuna and sweetcorn. This was the early stages of our boy’s penchant for tuna and sweetcorn. I made tuna and sweetcorn pasta salads at home (fusilli and farfalle), but after they left home, it would be the local university buffets and sandwich bars that would take over duties to satisfy their attachment to the combo.
For such a simple thing to cook there was a lot of fuss about the best way to bake a potato: to cover with oil (or not), to coat in salt (or not), and dare we mention it, should we pre-cook our potatoes in the microwave? The answers happen to be yes, yes, and yes.
Dad’s influence again. I made tacos in England in the days before Old El Paso first launched its Mexican products in the UK in 1984. This required instigating the difficult logistical process of ordering care packages full of masa harina (corn tortilla flour) from America.
Tacos make it this high up the list because they are not only delicious, but also fun to eat. Tacos are a quintessential familial meal due to the presentation of separate taco elements at the table. In order to make a taco, one must rely on the friendly and helpful co-operation of one’s fellow family members to pass the various bowls of salads, salsas, cheese, creams, tortillas and other fillings.
This communal finger-food fest is what makes every taco meal so memorable and enjoyable. We made every kind of taco – and lots of other Mexican food as well – including Dad’s famous fish tacos.
1. Spaghetti Bolognese
Yes, this most popular of Italian pasta recipe makes the number one spot for the very good reason that it was probably the one dish we consumed the most.
However, our spaghetti Bolognese was not of your common-or-garden type. Generally, leftover roast meat replace the usual mince, but both Nonna and Mrs WDC made their Bolognese in a particular style – the key was the sauce; far from being spicy, or thick and red from tinned tomatoes, or pungent with oregano and garlic, it was light and loose. The Italians treat their sauces like a seasoning, unlike the English, who perhaps in an effort to compensate for the loss of a meat and two veg, inundate their pasta with over-generous amounts of sauce. The Italian way is the reverse, a method designed to bring out the best in each particular pasta.
However, for all these exultations of less is more; we did break conventions by heaping handfuls of grated cheese (or slightly less Parmesan) over the pasta.
Dad adapted this style of cooking in many of his dishes, including his signature artichoke pappardelle.
Finally, who ever said you should not serve pasta with salad? Well, maybe with the benefit of endless time, we might have served our salad as a separate course – but a busy family often depends on expediency as well as sustenance, so we always ate our pasta with salad – and of course, plenty of crusty bread.