THE BLOG
04/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eat In Week - Sustainable Family Cooking

As this is "Eat In Week", it called to mind how little I actually ate out while growing up. My father was the cook in our family, but due to busy schedules as both my parents worked, we ate a lot of frozen dinners. It was my grandmother that really taught me to cook. I think back to my Sicilian grandmother and grandfather, the real roots for my love of cooking and growing vegetables. I still have the cheese grater that my grandfather made out of recycled wood from a wine crate. I have my grandmother's cast iron skillet as well as the pizza pan that we used to make the thick crust pizza that was one of her trademarks. Whenever I use these I think of them even though they died over 30 years ago.

I did not see them often, just a few times a year when they would make the trek by plane south from San Francisco to Burbank Airport. They would get off the plane toting bags overflowing with cheeses, olives and salamis bought in North Beach. It would not be long before my grandmother would have the large stock pot out (which I still have), boiling a whole chicken to make the chicken stock for pastina with small meatballs which was my favorite. My grandmother was comfortable and happy in the kitchen and I find that has rubbed off on me as well. In fact if I have had a bad day I find chopping and stirring in the kitchen is the best remedy.

A typical meal would start off with soup. An escarole, or chard was common, then a pasta dish, followed by a chicken or meat dish. This was every day, not just on Sundays. Meals were always filled with lots of conversation, stories and of course wine. Although I have some great dining out memories, cooking at home with my grandmother is different and more satisfying like her cooking. I would encourage everyone to start to create memories like that with their family. Even if it is simple dishes, or mostly store bought but adding your own touches to it type of cooking, I guarantee you are creating great memories.

My grandfather was the gardener. Although they did not have enough room to grow their own vegetables, as they owed an apartment building on Point Lobos near the Clift House, they had several children that had the land to grow what was needed. When they visited us we had citrus which did not grow well up north, so my grandfather would feed and tend to the trees while he was here. I think as an Italian being happy with your hands in the dirt is in your genes.

As a landscaper I grow my own organic vegetables. It can be challenging, but I have learned what works well and what doesn't. In the heat of the San Fernando Valley where I still live, we can grow a lot of great vegetables. Right now I have cabbage, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, chard, lettuces and artichokes. The broccoli and brussels sprouts haven't sent up stalks yet, but I still use their leaves in cooking. I just sauté like I would any leafy vegetable in a bit of olive oil and garlic. Not too long as I like them not thoroughly wilted. You can add a bit of bacon or pancetta which is great. Sauteed mushrooms, onions are also a great addition.

Here is a simple recipe for broccoli or brussel sprout greens if you have them in your garden, if not you can use spinach:

5 cups loosely packed leaves cleaned
3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic minced
3 grinds of a good coarse gray salt
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of grated lemon peel

In a large skillet over medium heat add the olive oil and garlic. Saute garlic slowly and make sure not to burn. Add leaves and coat them in the olive oil and garlic. The leaves will cook down quickly. You can cover them to speed up the process. Add the salt, lemon juice. Once wilted move to a serving platter and sprinkle the lemon rind on the top.

Once you start you do get hooked on growing your own vegetables. You will find that you can grow varieties that you just can't find in markets. If you are just starting out, I always suggest lettuces. There are so many varieties now. They are easy to start from seed. I know I am spoiled living in southern California when many of you are still dealing with snow and could not even think about growing any vegetables outdoors for several weeks.

So as I begin the week of "Eating in", I think of my family and how they are still with me as I pour myself a glass of wine and pull out the old cast iron skillet. It doesn't get more sustainable than that.