When Rachael and I started The Mimi Project, we compiled a list of recipes – with the help of other family members – that we wanted to re-create. Mimi died at Christmas last year, and Rachael and I inherited her treasured recipe box. Every time I talked to Mimi in the months before her death, she told us that she was busy getting the recipes cards organized for us, a fact our Aunt Mary Anne confirmed. Mimi spent hours at the dining room table, combing through those cards, ostensibly trying to get them in some kind of order. I think the exercise might have been more about reminiscing, thinking about all the good things she had cooked and all the things she would still like to cook. Lord knows, she cooked until the end! After reading Rachael’s post about failed ice-box cookies, Mimi baked us a batch – they were fresh and waiting for us on Christmas morning just days after her death.
Thinking of Mimi lovingly mixing and forming and baking cookies for us even as she was dying, it’s clear to me why I feel such a connection between food, love, and family. I was touched, then, to discover a recipe attributed to my brother Michele as I sorted through Mimi’s cards. Rachael, Michele, and I share the same mom (and thus the same Mimi!) – but Michele’s dad is not ours. Michele’s dad Maurizio is Italian, from Florence, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him my whole life as he now lives in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a sweet man, an accomplished scholar/designer (he’s been working on the Large Hadron Collider!) and a wonderful cook. I remember distinctly finding a jar of Barilla pasta sauce in my mom’s fridge many years ago – it was a new brand to our area back then, and I wanted to try it. It was delicious – just like home-made – and I excitedly bought another jar on my next trip to the grocery store. Imagine my disappointment when I opened that jar to discover the flavorless, processed stuff that I should have expected – and I realized immediately that the jar I’d found in my mom’s fridge had been a gift from Maurizio, homemade marinara sauce re-packaged in a recycled jar.
Michele’s sauce-making abilities rival those of his dad, so when I found this marinara sauce attributed to Michele among Mimi’s recipes, I knew immediately I had to make it. I found the perfect use for the sauce when I came across another of Mimi’s recipes, for “zucchini lasagna.” It wasn’t until I was in the middle of cooking the zucchini lasagna that I realized that there are no lasagna noodles – the whole point is to replace the pasta with vegetables. It’s simple, surprisingly good, and a great use for all those squash and zucchini at the farmer’s markets right now. And of course, for me, it’s a casserole that represents the layers of love and family that I connect to through cooking.
Michele’s Tomato (Marinara) Sauce
1 large can whole peeled tomatoes (I like organic San Marzanos, like these)
2/3 tbsp olive oil
Half an onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp sugar
Salt and pepper
In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent. Do not let the onions or garlic get browned or crisp. Add the tomatoes, sugar, a dash of cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and cook over low-medium heat until the tomatoes are broken down and flavors are melded, at least 30 minutes. Taste for salt, adjust as needed, and serve.
Mimi’s Zucchini Lasagna
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (or equivalent homemade – which is preferred!)
4 medium zucchini (about 1 1/4 pounds), sliced into rounds – I used a combination of zucchini and summer squash
2 tbsp. flour, divided
1 (12 oz.) container of cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt and pepper
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large saute pan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent. Add ground beef, browning and stirring to crumble. Add tomato sauce, taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as needed. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set cooked ground beef and tomato sauce aside.
In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute zucchini – I used a non-stick skillet and basically no olive oil. The squash and zucchini cooked nicely and even browned a little bit.
Spray a 12″ x 8″ x 2″ baking dish with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil in a mister. Combine cottage cheese and egg. Start with a layer of zucchini on the bottom of the pan. Then sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the flour. Spread a layer of the cottage cheese mixture, then spoon half of the meat sauce over the cottage cheese. Repeat layers. Bake casserole at 375 degrees for 35 minutes (until hot and bubbling). Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and bake another 5 minutes, until cheese begins to brown. Let the casserole rest for 5 minutes before serving. I garnished it with a chiffonade of basil – but it’s wonderful on its own, too!