Robrt Pela is a family man, so when the family comes over, it's a big deal. We are excited to score an invitation to his house, not only because he and his partner, Todd Grossman, live in a lovingly restored historic 20's bungalow, but also because he is cooking. With Pela (a longtime New Times contributor) cooking goes beyond simple food preparation. Ours was a lesson in total hospitality.
A niece once told him she likes meals hosted at his house because it's like eating in a fancy restaurant. We know what she means.
When we arrive at his house in the late afternoon, he is deep into preparations for Italian Wedding Soup for 35 family members, including his parents (both in their 80's), various siblings, spouses, nieces, nephews and the children his nieces and nephews have begun having.
"We're thirty five people and we get together once a month. Everybody does it differently." Pela does things formally -- with elegance and more than a nod to tradition.
The recipe we'll be following is his mother's. She has Alzheimer's disease and in the last few years, preserving his family's culinary heritage has become a priority for Pela.
When we get there, he has already made the chicken stock. And so while we start shredding chicken he begins the important step of mixing the meatballs. That's not all there is to this meal.
"A lot of people don't enjoy the process. This is a meal I'll serve it on Thursday evening but I will have spent the whole week making it." Yesterday he did the baking, which included dozens of homemade biscotti that are sitting on the sideboard.
"I'm trying to teach myself to make the things that mother made that I don't already know how to do, like braciole (pronounced bruh-zjole) because obviously now that she can't cook or bake somebody has to step in." That person is Pela. "So I was making braciole and I was looking for the recipe and I couldn't find it." He called his sister, tried talking to his mother - but nobody knew. He looked through all of his mother's cookbooks. "Then I thought, 'I'll call my Aunt Mary Jane.' She said, 'Oh honey there's no recipe, you just make it.'"
Ah, how many of us have lamented the loss of a family recipe? Pela has been trying his best to recreate it.
In making these family recipes, Pela is traversing the territory among family and human connection and memory.
We look over and Pela is rolling precise marble-sized meatballs. He says he will likely still be rolling these meatballs at 1 in the morning. He holds up a meatball, "This one is too big." We laugh because it is a little preposterous. "You know, my mother would sit and make 1,500 of these little meatballs and they'd all be exactly the same size."
He puts a ladleful of broth into the mixing bowl where he is placing the uniformly rolled meatballs. It is a clever solution, which prevents them from sticking together. "This is my contribution to wedding soup because I made this method up", he says.
"My mother would use cookie sheets -- she'd line them all up, and I don't know how she got them into the soup. I doubt that she dumped them in. She probably put them in herself. One at a time."
We start talking about how his mother went about cooking for the family, which included her five children and husband.
Pela says, "Well my mother was always pretty much by herself because we'd all clear out to go to school, and my memory is of coming home and she would simultaneously be cooking and playing the piano. She'd have something on the stove, she'd have something in the oven, and she'd play a couple of songs on the piano, then she'd go in and scrape something, open the oven, go back and play another song."
She played contemporary stuff, a lot of show tunes, some Cole Porter.
His mother's recipes are contained in three-ring binders -- including re-used school binders, like, "My brother's math binder with some girl's name written in a heart," says Pela. She would also annotate her recipes. "Every time she'd make them she'd write notes. Easter bread recipe might say, `Easter 1967 - a little dry, next year add an extra egg. Don't use honey glaze on this cake.' She wrote all these notes to herself, which were really useful to me."
At his parents' wedding in Niles, Ohio in May 1946, they had sandwiches and cookies and coffee and probably wine -- served out of baskets. It was a very informal thing, but then on the other hand, there was a light orchestra and dancing. "Isn't that odd?" Pela asks.
"It is deeply ironic that I'm not allowed to marry. Believe me, if Todd were here he would tell you... that I will work into every conversation the fact that we are not allowed to marry one another. "
Pela moves on to making the croutons, so we can see how it's done, saving the rest of the meatball rolling for later. One thing's for sure: It is going to be quite a meal.
2 1/2 pound chicken
2 cups diced celery with leaves
1 cup chopped onion
salt to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 pound ground beef, veal, or lamb
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon dried parsley
7 well-beaten eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring chicken to a boil in a pot with just enough water to cover chicken. Reduce heat and skim off top. Simmer 2 hours.
Combine meatball ingredients. Roll small, marble-sized meatballs and set aside.
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When chicken is tender, remove and cool. Add celery, onion and parsley to broth. Simmer 25 minutes. Add tiny meatballs and cook for another hour.
Discard skins and bones from chicken and shred meat. Return to the broth after meatballs are cooked. Simmer 15 minutes longer. Add cheese, stirring well.
Prepare croutons by combining ingredients and spreading on a well-greased cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes. Cool. Cut into tiny squares; set aside.
Serve soup with Italian Croutons and Parmesan cheese.