In a Mediterranean household, there is nothing more important than food — it’s how a family communicates and stays close. Growing up in a Moroccan-Italian house, we were no exception to the rule.
My brother and I always had the freedom to go out or hang out with friends, but we always had to be home for dinner. If we weren’t, then there had to be one hell of a good excuse. But we never wanted to skip out on dinner. Our parents weren’t chefs — a long running joke of my father’s was that he “didn’t know how to cook.”
It’s passion like theirs in the heart of Mediterranean food that makes it so good and why most, if not all, of my favourite memories growing up revolve around food.
From as soon as I could see over the counter, I remember helping my mother make lasagna or holding the cutting board down as my father butchered a leg of lamb. What might be strange to some was second nature to me. With my family back in Montréal, all I have to do to get a taste of home is make the food I saw being made in front of me for 19 years. A family favourite being one of the most simple: Pasta.
The keys to a good pasta dish is simplicity and fresh ingredients. Screw up one of those and you can forget about it.
1. Dice up a head’s worth of garlic cloves and two onions, not too thinly because you don’t want it to burn in the pot.
2. Turn up to medium-high heat and give a big pot a healthy coating of olive oil (Note: “Healthy” for southern Italians is probably excessive in the eyes of everyone else).
3. Drop in the onion and garlic. Once par-cooked, add a healthy dose of tomato paste along with a bit of paprika.
4. My mother is from Calabria, the tip of the boot in southern Italy, so we’d add a ton of crushed up chili flakes and/or olive-oil-soaked chili peppers at this point. It’s OK to skip this part, especially if you don’t want to get an ulcer.
5. If you plan on adding meat, do it now. You can never go wrong with pork bones and Italian sausage.
6. If you want to make meatballs, you’re going to want to get a mix of ground pork and beef. Mix in a bowl with some chili flakes, Italian herbs and just a bit of oregano and paprika. The one thing that is absolutely needed are bread crumbs, as they’ll keep the meatballs from getting dry.
7. Form the meatballs in the palm of your hand, starting out with a puck and making it rounder and rounder until ball-shaped.
8. You’re going to want to bake these until they’re brown on the outside but still raw in the center, adding them to the sauce after the tomatoes.
9. Add the aforementioned tomatoes to their bed of cooked onions, garlic (and/or meat).
10. The only way you can mess this up is by getting bad canned tomatoes. Do yourself a favour and buy some that are from Italy. It’ll be a dollar more than the local supermarket variety but infinitely better. If you want to treat yourself, get a can of San Marzano tomatoes.
11. Crush up your tomatoes with a wooden spoon and let your sauce simmer for anywhere between 45 minutes to a whole day. If you need to make a quick sauce, leave it on high heat, constantly stirring so that the water boils off faster.
12. Sprinkle in some Italian herbs and oregano and serve with the noodle of your choice. Make sure to take off a minute from the noodle’s cook time for a perfect al dente.
13. Serve and enjoy.
Bonus points for blasting Frank Sinatra throughout this entire process to give it an authentic GoodFellas vibe.