Celebrating life’s milestones with family and friends is one of my greatest pleasures. Last Thursday, I was thrilled to host a dinner party for my remarkable mother’s 90th birthday.
Ida Menage Olah (known as Eda to her Cleveland family and friends) doesn’t like to be the center of attention. Although she is legally blind, she has never lost her appetite for Italian food. When she reluctantly agreed to let me host a small dinner party for her, she told me not to make anything she didn’t like to eat.
I went back through all my favorite Italian cookbooks to find the dishes my mom would enjoy most. Although none of the dishes contained the meat analogues I normally blog about, all of them were delicious and satisfied the carnivores that joined us to celebrate my mom’s big day.
Some of the antipasti are from the 1993 version of Patricia Wells’ Trattoria – Healthy, Simple Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy.
Several are vegan and can be made ahead of time, leaving only the Vodka Pasta to be made thirty minutes before you want to serve it.
We enjoyed Silky Sautéed Peppers made with red, yellow, orange, green, and purple peppers from Rosemary Pete’s Herbs at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. Just cook the strips of peppers slowly in a mixture of red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar for about 30-40 minutes, and then finish them with extra virgin olive oil, and a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper. How easy is that?
Then, I made an Insalata di Olive with pimento stuffed green olives, minced organic celery, garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and crushed red peppers. Deceptively simple to make, but oh so tasty!
Next up was a Grilled Eggplant, Golden Zephyr Zucchini, and Vidalia Onion appetizer, a variation on a favorite recipe from my 1990 edition of Cucina Rustica by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman. I used a mixture of white and purple eggplant, a large Vidalia onion, three or four lovely zucchini, garlic, oregano, sage, olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper.
We had a few more antipasti, and to please my mom and guests, one included Italian tuna and garbanzos, and another included white Italian anchovies with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, basil, oregano, capers, and extra virgin olive oil. I also made whole wheat crostini topped with Fishing Creek Creamery’s Spiderbite Chèvre and slow roasted cherry tomatoes. Yum!
As my guests were devouring the antipasti, I made my Vodka Pasta.
With 10 guests, I needed to double my normal recipe. I’ve tried a lot of variations over the past twenty years, but my favorite is based on a wonderful recipe from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria, which I’ve refreshed using organic ingredients.
Vodka Pasta is a remarkably simple recipe, and never fails to bring a twinkle to my mom’s eyes.
Our favorite Italian toast is “Cent’anni” – which literally means one hundred years.
Cent’anni, my dear mother!
- ⅓ cup organic extra virgin olive oil
- 8 fresh garlic cloves, pressed
- ½-1 teaspoon crushed red peppers
- Freshly ground sea salt
- 32-ounce can Organic Muir Glen Diced Fire Roasted Tomatoes
- 32-ounce can Organic Muir Glen Crushed Tomatoes with Basil
- 2 lbs. organic torchiette (Earth Fare is my favorite brand)
- ¼ cup vodka
- 2 cups organic heavy cream (Organic Valley is what we use)
- ¼ cup minced fresh organic Italian parsley (ideally, from your garden)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, and sauté the garlic and crushed peppers over low heat, with just a pinch of salt. Make sure the garlic doesn’t brown.
- Add the two cans of tomatoes, and simmer for about 15 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken.
- Meanwhile, fill a large pasta pot with water and bring to a roiling boil. (I used the large pot I use for canning since I was cooking two pounds of pasta.) Add 2-3 tablespoons of salt, and then add the torchiette, stirring well to keep it from sticking. Cook until al dente, reserve one cup of pasta water, and then drain.
- Pour the pasta back in the still-hot pasta pot, and add the tomato sauce. Toss well, add the vodka, and toss again. Pour the cream into the skillet that contained the tomato sauce, and scrap in every bit that may remain. Pour the cream into the pasta pot, and toss again. Make sure everything is thoroughly mixed, and then cover. Turn the heat back on under the pasta pot, but make sure it is very low. Let it rest for a minute or two to absorb the sauce. Uncover the pot, and add a little bit of pasta water if it seems too thick.
- Add the parsley and freshly ground black pepper. Toss again and serve.
- This dish is traditionally served without cheese, but if your family insists, offer some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side.