It all started with my mother, a creative and imaginative cook who loved trying anything new, but whose everyday meals often included simple Italian dishes that we learned only much, much later, were those she had eaten as a child.
Eggs poached in a plain tomato sauce; a salad of tuna, cannolli beans and thinly sliced onion dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, braised artichokes stuffed with parsley, bread crumbs & garlic; escarole (or sometimes spinach) steamed & served cold as a salad with garlic and olive oil; delicate pieces of veal with sliced mushrooms in white wine, and my favourite – thin slices of beef rolled and tied with a stuffing of parsley, bread crumbs & garlic and braised to a melting tenderness.
We never found these dishes anywhere but on our table at home, not in recipe books nor local Italian restaurants nor the houses of friends of Italian heritage nor even in our later travels to Milan, Venice, Tuscany or Rome. Where they originated was a puzzle my sister and I discussed endlessly over the years
And then the answer came one day over the radio. Listening to the popular New York food writer and radio host Arthur Schwartz discussing his (then) new book, “Naples at Table”, my sister realised he was talking about the food of our childhood, specific, regional dishes taught to our Greenwich Village born mother by her mother, who was born in Sarno, a town in the hills above Naples.
Eggs poached in tomato sauce was “Eggs in Purgatory” (Uova in Purgatorio); Arthur’s recipe for stuffed artichokes (Cariofi Imbottotti) includes anchovies, but then recipes vary from village to village and even family to family; and his Smothered Escarole (Scarola Affogaia) includes red pepper flakes, which our mother’s never did.
I cook these dishes the way my mother did, from memory and experience, but Arthur presents them so clearly that anyone can enjoy them.
This is basic comfort food – a simple, quickly made lunch or supper straight from the store cupboard. As Arthur says, “it exemplifies the Neapolitan genius for making something out of nothing.”
Uova in Purgatorio
from Naples at Table by Arthur Schwartz , published by Harper Collins
1 small onion, then thinly sliced or chopped
2 or 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
pinch hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
2 cups tomato puree, canned crushed tomatoes, or chopped and drained canned tomatoes.
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
4 to 6 eggs
1 – in a 9 or 10 inch skillet, combine the onion, olive oil and hot pepper and cook over medium heat until the onion is lightly golden, about 6 minutes.
2 Add the tomato puree, dried marjoram and a big pinch of salt to start. Simmer for 5 or 6 minutes until the sauce has thickened a little. You can put the pan aside now (at room temperature or in the refrigerator) if you are not cooking the eggs until later.
3 Before cooking the eggs, bring the sauce back to a simmer, taste and add more salt if necessary, then break the eggs into the bubbling sauce. Cover and cook until the eggs are done to taste, meaning with fully set whites and runny yokes, or until the yokes are set further or completely (my mother always stopped the yokes were still runny and so do I)
4 serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano, pecorino or ricotta salto