Tonight, I am making a Rotundo family specialty for dinner. It’s a soup we call Patad’ [e] Cucuzz’ (or Potato and Squash).* Here is a rough recipe:
olive oil (as much as you like, I go for 1/4 cup-ish)
1/2 chopped large onion
minced garlic (again, as much as you like–I use about 2 tablespoons)
2 potatoes, peeled and chunked
2 squash, cut in wedge slices (tonight, I have one zucchini and one oblong yellow specimen)
1 bay leaf
dried oregano, to taste
dried basil, to taste
salt, to taste
(optional: 1 cube of chicken bullion–I do without)
1) Coat the bottom of a saucepan in the oil.
2) Sautee the onion and garlic in the oil until the kitchen is sweaty hot and the neighbors are pausing in the hallway outside your apartment because of the smell
3) Add a couple cups of water, enough to cover the onions etc and then some
4) Put in potatoes and spices; simmer over medium heat until potatoes are soft
5) Add the squash about 10-15 minutes before you want to serve. You don’t want them too squishy.
This was one of my favorite things to eat growing up, and one of my mother’s signature dishes, although one out of three times she’d complain that she’d done something wrong, it wasn’t as good as her grandmother’s. My mother has always been an interested but insecure cook; she’d spend her summer vacations trying new recipes and kvetching if they didn’t work out. My father, who probably did about half the cooking when I was a kid, was always more confident and fly-by-night. He always made the same couple dishes but never seemed to worry about how they’d come out, and (perhaps as a result?) they never seemed to go wrong.
I take after my mother in this, as in many things.
Despite the fact that it’s my comfort food, tonight is the first time I’ve cooked this soup in almost six years. The last time, I was cooking it to impress a boy who ended up standing me up for dinner. When the soup was finished, a big pot of it, I took out my phone on a whim and called F, telling him my date (a good friend of his) had stood me up and would he want to join me for dinner, since I had too much for one. He came over to my apartment, bringing with him a beautiful chocolate cake he had seen me eyeing at the grocery store. We ate the soup together in the dusty stairwell outside my fifth-floor walk-up, since my roommate didn’t trust men in her house. We sat and talked all night by the light of my one tiny candle, watching my roommate, who was doing a colon cleanse, make trips past us to the bathroom every 20 minutes or so, pretending not to see us. Before he left, he gave me one chaste closed-mouth kiss, our first kiss ever.
I didn’t make this soup again for him, or even for myself, the entire time we lived together. It turned out he didn’t really like it–no meat–and in fact he didn’t care for most of the (heavily old-country Italian) dishes in my repertoire. But it was fine, he liked to cook, and took great pleasure in fixing me roasts and casseroles and lots of things Betty Crocker would have approved of.
Tonight I’m cooking for one–something I’ve been too lazy to do over the last three months of Single Life. I was always confused by the scene in the movie Amelie where the heroine fixes herself a fancy bowl of pasta and goes as far as to put cheese in an artsy little grater to top it off. I never understood the point of the pageantry–or the extra work–if she was just going to eat alone. Now, suddenly, I get it. I made myself go out and pick up dessert and a bottle of wine, though, to formalize this.
Sometimes, in my head, I mix up Italian (which is in my blood, or something, but which I never learned to speak) and Spanish, which I studied for a long time. Tonight, while I’m cooking in Italian, I have a Spanish thought:
*In my mother’s family’s Calabrese dialect, everything slurs and truncates. Whenever I’ve tried to render this phonetically, I have struggled. A longer story, for another time.