BY JOSH MCAULIFFE
The vast majority of Mary Smirne’s Italian recipes originated with her grandmother, the late Rachel Popoli Paff.
Oddly enough, though, it was a friend with an Irish surname who gave her one of her family’s favorite recipes – Cavatelli and Broccoli, the winning entry for this week’s Local Flavor: Recipes We Love contest.
Mrs. Smirne received a $100 gift certificate from Ray’s ShurSave Supermarkets, which has locations in Old Forge, Waymart, Factoryville and Montrose.
A Fleetville resident, Mrs. Smirne got the recipe for Cavatelli and Broccoli about 30 years ago from her former co-worker, Nancy Gaughan, whose chocolate cake recipe was a Local Flavor winner in 2011.
The dish has since become a staple in the Smirne household, thanks to its simplicity.
There are only six ingredients – broccoli florets, crushed garlic, grated cheese (Mrs. Smirne insists on Locatelli pecorino romano), chicken broth, olive oil and cavatelli pasta.
“I’ll make it maybe once a month. It’s good for a Sunday dinner,” Mrs. Smirne said.
At one time, Mrs. Smirne used frozen cavatelli. But a few years back she decided to buy her own cavatelli maker at her favorite store, Doma Importing Co. in Dunmore, the same place where she buys her Locatelli.
“I saw it there, and I said, ‘I’m going to make my own.’ … Cavatelli is the easiest pasta to make,” said Mrs. Smirne, noting the pasta is made with four ingredients – flour, warm water, baking powder and Crisco.
She made a fresh batch on a recent evening, serving it with a caprese salad and a loaf of Italian bread.
The dish is simply awesome – high praise coming from someone who ran screaming from broccoli as a kid. Everything combines so well with the cavatelli, which, given its scratch-made origins, was second to none.
Mrs. Smirne grew up in a family so committed to good Italian food that braciole took the place of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Her grandmother was the type who would make several hundred ravioli or cappelletti in a single session.
“She made pounds and pounds of pasta. So, I learned how to cook a lot (of food). I never cook for just one meal,” Mrs. Smirne said.
Of course, grandma was one of those “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” cooks who didn’t write much down, so replicating her recipes proved difficult. Mrs. Smirne insists it took “about 20 years” to perfect her spaghetti sauce.
“And she died with her ricotta pie recipe,” said Mrs. Smirne, the disappointment still in her voice after all these years. “She’d make it for anybody, but she wouldn’t give you the recipe.”
Yet, there are so many other recipes Mrs. Smirne has been able to share with others.
When her son, Rosario, now a federal police officer in Washington, D.C., was working in a program for juvenile delinquents, Mrs. Smirne would make huge platters of food for him to take to the residents and his coworkers – everything from stuffed shells with meatballs to sausage and peppers to lasagna to eggplant Parmesan.
Her other specialties include gnocchi, chicken Parmesan, arancini rice balls and several soups, among them Italian wedding, pasta fagioli and pastina.
Mrs. Smirne claims she can’t bake, although she makes homemade cannoli, and knocked out 750 cookies for her daughter Maria’s wedding.
Her interests have even extended to Italian spirits. Last Christmas, she peeled 50 lemons for her and her son’s homemade limoncello.
“We give it out as gifts,” she said.
Recently, Mrs. Smirne, her husband, Michael, and their son took their love of Italian culture to the next level by purchasing a vacation home in Pizzo, Calabria. After a few more visits there, you can bet she’ll have more recipes to add to her already impressive collection.
Mary Smirne’s Cavatelli and Broccoli
1 lb. frozen cavatelli
1 large head broccoli, cut into florets
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Handful grated cheese, or to taste
1 can chicken broth
¼ cup olive oil
In a pan, saute garlic in oil until done, but not brown. Add broccoli and heat until the broccoli soaks up the oil. Add the chicken broth and simmer.
Cook the pasta, according to the directions. Drain pasta and add the grated cheese.
Mix all ingredients. Serve.