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My sister-in-law was visiting, and I brought her up to my bedroom to show her some changes I’d made to the décor. After she’d admired my new acquisitions, she looked down at an old wooden child’s chair on which sat a large, gangly stuffed animal, a monkey. She made a disparaging comment. “That’s Bananas,” I said defensively. “He’s over 50 years old and I was given him when I was too young to make a family trip to Buffalo. I stayed with Grandma Bella and we ate lots of pizza.”
We did other things too. We flopped onto her large, soft bed, covered in a nubby white chenille spread, and poured over old greeting cards, birth announcements and creased letters written on pale blue airmail paper from the past. Best of all were the black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs of the family, some of whom I recognized and others that Bella introduced me to through her vivid stories. I held her hand in mine, soft and crepey, and absentmindedly pressed the thick bands of veins protruding from it.
We shopped at the small family-run local markets of Elmhurst, Queens to buy chicken wings, vegetables and beef for my favorite dinner: chicken fricassee with tiny meatballs, a comforting dish of silky wing-meat falling off the bone in a bit of rich broth fortified with those tender meatballs and a stray piece of onion or two. And we’d then shop for butter, flour and eggs for her famous butter cookies made with an aluminum press that extruded the dough like magic when she turned a crank at its base. Afterwards, we would sit on a bench in a small circular park across the street from Bella’s apartment and banter with just about everyone who walked through and saw my grandma.
Bella was the kind of person who elicited the feeling that she was everyone’s grandma, and she was referred to by friends and neighbors as such. It was she, my mother’s mom, who came along on family vacations, visited us virtually every weekend and babysat when my parents went out for the evening. On those nights, she would cook for us, the meal always ending with a few of her rich, buttery cookies. Then Janet and I were put to bed with kisses, and Bella and my older brother Buzz would settle in for the evening. Bella would kick off her shoes, roll her stockings down around her ankles, look for a wrestling match on television and start shuffling the cards for their first game of canasta.
Grandma Bella outlived my mother, but still was like a second mother to my dad and continued to spend weekends with us, until she gave up her cozy apartment and moved to an assisted-living facility and eventually into their nursing home. By the time I thought to ask her for her recipe for chicken fricassee, she could no longer recall how she made it. Like all women of her generation, she had never written down a recipe or used measuring implements, cooking by eye and feel.
My sister, Janet, inherited Bella’s cookie press and continues the tradition of turning out trays of those special confections, and a few years ago I tried to replicate Grandma’s fricassee. It’s not the same because I could not conjure exactly the love with which it was made, but I think I’ve come pretty close because I put into it my own love for the woman who created it and made our lives richer for it.
10 chicken wings
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, sliced diagonally into ½” pieces
2 stalks celery, sliced diagonally into ½” pieces
2 medium onions, halved, then quartered
1 bay leaf
½ cup white wine or cooking sherry
2 cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper
20 – 25 tiny meatballs (see attached recipe)
Generously salt and pepper chicken pieces. Melt butter and oil in Dutch oven. Brown chicken pieces in batches, on medium heat, turning once or twice, until golden, about 6-7 minutes. Remove to a platter. Add vegetables to pot and cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, scraping up any browned bits. Raise heat to high and add wine. Let cook a couple of minutes. Return chicken to pot, add bay leaf and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then immediately lower heat to a simmer and cover pot. Cook for 30-35 minutes, moving pieces around occasionally, from top to bottom. Add at least 20 to 25 meatballs to pot and continue cooking, partially covered, until heated through, about 5–7 minutes. Ladle wings and meatballs into shallow bowls with some of the broth, leaving the vegetables in the pot. They are to be discarded, though I never mind a piece or two of soft, silky onion in my soup bowl.
Grandma Bella’s Tiny Meatballs
Makes about 40 meatballs
1 – 1 ¼ pound ground beef and pork mix
1 egg, beaten
2 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
Splash of Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup breadcrumbs, preferably fresh made by toasting two or three slices of good white or whole wheat bread, tearing them into pieces, and then pulsing in a food processor until large crumbs form
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350°. Put ground meat in a large bowl. Add beaten egg, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and shallot. Mix well, but don’t overwork. With slightly wet hands, roll the meat into tiny balls, the size of a large marble, and place them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 – 18 minutes, turning once, until cooked through. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use. They may be frozen at this point for future use.