February 9th, 2018/ BY Nancy Johnson

Recipes from around the world, in celebration of my ancestry

I grew up in an Irish-Italian household. My mother claimed her Irish Catholic family came from County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, where Croagh Patrick, a 764-metre mountain, looms. The mountain is a pilgrimage site honouring St Patrick, who is believed to have fasted and prayed on its summit.

My dad emigrated from Fiuggi, Italy at the tender age of 9, leaving behind his hometown, a medieval city that lies about an hour southeast of Rome in the Lazio region. Famous for its Acqua di Fiuggi mineral water, the small city also boasts its own Catholic patron saint — San Biagio, aka St Blaise — who in 1298 saved the city from a foreign attack by conjuring the illusion of Fiuggi in flames, leading the marauders to abandon their attack, believing the town had already been sacked.

For many years, I thought it was all settled — I’m Irish and Italian. But wait. What? I’m British? And Turkish? And Spanish? And European Jewish? And Ulster Irish from Northern Ireland?

Yep, I had my DNA analyzed through Ancestry.com. It’s raised more questions than answers, but it’s a fascinating map into the mystery of who my ancestors were.

My dad always said we were descended from the Etruscans, the ancient civilization that settled Tuscany. He claimed our family name — Lucarelli — is Tuscan; there is even a small town in Tuscany called Lucarelli. There is some evidence the Etruscans may have been Turkish; even St Blaise was said to be born in an area that is now Turkey.

And what of my Jewish heritage? Who are the Jewish people in my tribe, and why did our Jewish heritage end?

Why am I Spanish? I know the ancient Romans invaded Spain countless times; could that be the key? Then again, members of the beleaguered Spanish Armada washed onto Ireland’s shores in 1588, starving and ragged. Did one of my beautiful, brave and somewhat saucy great-grandmothers save a dark and handsome Spanish sailor — or is that just a romantic novel in my head waiting to happen?

And why did my ancestors meander from Ulster to County Mayo, before sailing for America during the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century, bringing with them a bit of British DNA, which makes me feel an awful lot closer to The Beatles?

I came into this world interested in people (fun fact: “people” is a word from the mysterious Etruscan language). From the time I was three years old, I remember thinking that every person has a story — and I wanted to know their stories. I believe that’s why I became a writer.

And now I have a beautiful map of my ancestry, with a rich tapestry of time woven into it. I may never know all of the map’s stories, but I know one thing for sure — I have already learned from them.

In celebration of my ancestry, here are some recipes from around the world.

turkish rice pilaf with pistachios

serves 4

Oddly enough, when I was in my 20s, my mode of exercise was Turkish bellydance. And stranger yet, my beautiful niece Jackie also practices Turkish bellydance. We both feel an affinity for the music and the dance.

1 tbsp butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups long-grain rice
1/4 cup unsalted pistachios, chopped
1 pinch saffron, steeped in about 1 cup hot water
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 large bay leaf
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup golden raisins

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the oil over low heat. Stir in onion and salt. Cook the onions until translucent, about 3 minutes. Increase heat to medium and add rice and pistachios.

Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add saffron and its water, the stock and bay leaf. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Add peas and raisins.

Lower heat to medium-low and cook, covered, 15 minutes or until rice is tender. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Match: Serve with chicken kebabs and a Gewürtztraminer.



roasted patatas bravas

The Spanish explorers brought potatoes from Peru to Europe in the 16th century. This dish is traditionally deep-fried and served as a tapa, or appetizer. Here, the potatoes are roasted. For a faster roasting time, parboil the potatoes before roasting. I actually prefer Spanish olive oil to all the others — it has a buttery flavour with a milder, less bitter aftertaste. You can also make the bravas sauce with smoked Spanish paprika. If you’d like, add diced roasted tomatoes and a fresh minced parsley garnish. For a tapas presentation, arrange the potatoes on a platter with olives, cheese, sliced toasted artisan bread, and jamón serrano (dry-cured Spanish ham).

6 baking potatoes, skin on, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup Spanish extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 dashes hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 tsp sweet Spanish paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp water

Preheat oven to 375˚F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange potatoes on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Roast 30 minutes or until tender and browned. Add half the garlic in the last 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, hot sauce, paprika, the rest of the garlic, salt and pepper. Stir in water until mixture is smooth. Transfer potatoes to serving plate. Drizzle with sauce.

Match: Serve with a dry sparkling Spanish Cava.

irish shepherd’s pie

There are as many recipes for shepherd’s pie as there are folks in Ireland, England, Canada and beyond. Here’s my version — adjust, add, subtract, change as you’d like. Make it your signature dish. I make my own mashed potatoes with butter, milk, salt and pepper.  But feel free to purchase prepared mashed potatoes from the supermarket.

2 tbsp canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 lb lean ground beef
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb mushrooms, chopped
1 tbsp flour
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups beef stock
1 package onion soup mix
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp oregano
1 tbsp tomato paste

1 package frozen peas and carrots
10 baking potatoes, peeled, cubed, boiled and mashed
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 375˚F.

In a large skillet, in hot canola oil, sauté onion, ground beef, garlic and mushrooms. Drain off fat through sieve. Return beef mixture to skillet. Sprinkle with flour. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add beef stock, onion soup mix, Worcestershire sauce, milk, thyme, oregano and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, stirring.

Reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes over low heat. Add peas and carrots during the last 5 minutes.

Coat a 13 x 9 pan with cooking spray. Spread beef mixture in pan. Gently spread mashed potatoes on top. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Match: Very good with a Côtes du Rhône.



carole greenspan’s brisket

serves 6

I have confessed to the Greenspans, my dearest Jewish friends (and possibly my relatives) that I will never give up bacon. Still, here is an awesome brisket recipe the Greenspan family very generously gave to me. One of my Jewish friends has said to me: So be a Jew who eats bacon. I like that. Make this brisket a day before so that you can remove the fat.

5 lb beef brisket
1 large onion, sliced
3 chopped cloves garlic
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 cup old-fashioned chili sauce, such as Heinz
2 cups ginger ale

Preheat oven to 325˚F.

Place all items in a Dutch oven. Bake, covered, for 5 hours. Add water as needed.

Refrigerate. To reheat: Preheat oven to 350˚F. Remove all hardened fat from brisket. Slice brisket. Pour defatted sauce over the brisket. Cover and reheat for 45 minutes.

Match: Try a Syrah.

roasted racks of lamb

serves 4

My mother accompanied my dad to Italy in 1972. She recounted a day unlike any other, when she climbed into the hills to choose a lamb for dinner from an Italian shepherd. This is the roast she cooked with my dad’s aunt and cousins. It must be the British in me; I can’t have lamb without mint jelly. 

2 racks of lamb
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Minced garlic cloves, to taste
Minced fresh Italian herbs, such as oregano, rosemary and basil
Mint jelly, optional

Preheat oven to 375˚F.

Pat racks dry. Rub racks with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pat on garlic and herbs. Roast, uncovered, rib sides down, for 40 minutes or until instant-read thermometer reads 135˚F degrees for medium-rare.

Let stand 10 minutes. Cut each rack into chops. Serve with mint jelly, if desired.

Match: Open a Bordeaux, one of my all-time favourite wines.



Comments are closed.