Manicotti Meets the Microwave
“The Indians are the Italians of Asia…It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that the Italians are the Indians of Europe…There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indian in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. The language of India and language of Italy, they make everyman a poet, and make something beautiful from every banalitẻ. They are nations where love – amore, pyaar – makes a cavalier of a Borsalino on a street corner, and makes a princess of a peasant girl, if only for the second that her eyes meet yours.”
– Gregory David Roberts – Shantaram
When I was younger, I would occasionally daydream about a knight in shining armor who would ride through the forest and sweep me off my feet as we galloped towards a beautiful sunset (I blame Disney). Imagine my surprise when this dream came true…well, sort of. Instead of shining armor, my knight wore an elaborate gold and red kurtha. Instead of a crown, he donned a turban and instead of a forest, he rode through skyscrapers. However, on our wedding day, he arrived on a majestic white horse and just like that turned a fantasy into a real life fairytale…with an Indian twist.
When Akash proposed, I had been to enough Indian weddings during our seven-year relationship to know that we would be planning a weeklong extravaganza that would honor and celebrate both of our cultures. While we certainly ran into a few roadblocks on this path of culture fusion, one thing that didn’t need justifying from either side was the food. Food plays such an integral role in both the Indian and Italian ways of life, and we were so looking forward to serving our friends and family the best of both worlds.
The Sangeet, meaning “sung together” is a celebration that takes place a few days before the actual Indian wedding ceremony. The evening is filled with choreographed dances, spontaneous singing, and sometimes guests will even put together a skit that pokes fun at the betrothed couple, all in the name of entertainment. There is also usually a mehndi (men-dee) artist who comes to creates beautiful henna designs on the hands of all of the ladies, including the bride.
For our Sangeet, we catered the Indian fare from Masala, one of our favorite Indian restaurants owned by a dear family friend. To compliment the delicious food, a barrage of incredible Indian aunties contributed a vast array of yummy pakoras and other appetizers. When brainstorming how we could incorporate the Italian side of things, it got a little bit trickier. I could have put together big bowls of caprese salad or bruschetta, but that just didn’t feel right. I knew what I had to do, but wasn’t exactly sure how to get it done. I needed to call my Nonna (grandmother in Italian) and request backup. Anyone with Italian relatives knows that once you have had true and authentic Italian food, nothing else will ever quite measure up to it. My heart raced as the phone rang, and when she answered, I tried to act as breezy as I could. There was a bit of small talk, catching up on how the wedding plans were coming together, and then I had my window. She asked me if there was anything she could do to help, and it was now or never.
“Actually Nonna, I was thinking that maybe you could make some manicotti for us to serve at the Sangeet” – pause.
“Certo Tesoro (Certainly, dear one). How many people are you expecting?” Longer pause.
“Um, Anywhere between 150 to 200.” Longest pause ever.
“Ma che dici – duecento persone?? Marisanna, Managia!” Which translates to “What are you saying? Two hundred people?? Marissa Ann, for the love of god!”
My Nonna was not a person who cut corners. She was born and raised in Rome, Italy and had to sneak food across German barricades to feed her family in the throes of the Second World War. In seventh grade I had the privilege of interviewing her about her experience growing up in a war-torn country. She preferred not to talk about it, but wrote her answers by hand on lined notebook paper. She compiled over ten pages in total, and to this day, those papers are some of my most treasured possessions. In them she recounts stories of memorizing routes to avoid land mines, and raids on Italian homes where German soldiers would to take all valuables, along with any men who looked to be over sixteen with the intent to make these young boys fight for the other side. Once, she got wind of a particular raid that would be targeting her street, and her family came up with the idea to cut open a mattress, burn the stuffing, and sew her brother up inside it in hopes that he would be concealed during the ransacking.
She came from an era where you savored ingredients because you didn’t know if – or when- then would be available to you again. I remember making lemon pie with her as a child, and as we separated the egg whites from the yolks, I dropped my first yellow yolk into the sink and rinsed it away. She gently scolded me and told me to put the rest of the yolks in a bowl so she could use them to make mayonnaise later. Nothing ever went to waste in her house, and everything could be made into something even more delicious than what it started as. To this day, I still feel guilty throwing away an avocado that I let sit for a little too long, thinking of what it took to grow and harvest that avocado, and how far it had come, just to end up in my compost bin.
We used lemons in our wedding centerpieces, which I thought we could get in bulk at Costco, but she refused and proceeded to buy organic lemons from Whole Foods. Not because she was pretentious but simply because she thought people may want to take them home and use them after the wedding, and she wanted our guests to have the best to celebrate the occasion.
After little persuasion, my Nonna agreed that she would make the manicotti for the Sangeet, but it would mean that she would be flying up three weeks prior to the wedding in order to prepare it, which she did. My Nonna, bless her heart, stationed herself in our kitchen and made pan after pan of homemade manicotti and sauce from scratch. She charmed our neighbors into letting us borrow their refrigerators and freezers, and made more than a dozen trips to farmer’s markets and the specialty Italian grocery store in downtown Seattle to purchase ingredients. They even special ordered her favorite brand of San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. She had a way.
On the day of the Sangeet, she and my mom collected the bounty and stacked twenty-five pans one by one in the back of my dad’s rental “car” which resembled a miniature Hummer. As they unloaded the pans at Akash’s parents’ house, my Nonna gave the caterer meticulous instructions on when to put the manicotti in the oven, at what temperature, and told her she had to wait ten minutes after the sauce on the top bubbles before removing it from the oven so it could cool for at least seven minutes before serving it. She even handed over a written key describing which pan should go in the oven at what time based on their current stage of defrosting. The caterer looked a little daunted, but saw the passion my Nonna’s eyes and nodded in agreement. She learned in five-minutes what I had known my whole life – you didn’t say no to my Nonna.
Before we knew it, guests began to arrive, music started playing, and servers started to pass drinks and appetizers as ladies stood in line to get their henna done. I was so caught up in the joy of the moment, that I didn’t even realize that the manicotti was missing from people’s filled plates. Months later, my dearest Maid of Honor confessed to me that she too realized it was missing (as she had been looking forward to eating it for weeks) and went to go check on it. That is when she saw the cold pans still on the counter, left behind in the hustle and bustle of all the prep-work going on behind the scenes. She panicked, as she realized she didn’t have enough time to heat it in the oven and ran to the yard to see that my Nonna was occupied getting her henna done. She then made an executive decision and started scooping the manicotti into bowls and put them in the microwave. She secretly enlisted the help of a couple more lovely bridesmaids and one by one they nuked bowls on high for six minutes each, and then placed the noodles into the original pans before bringing them out to the tables. If my Nonna knew that after all of the hours of planning and preparation that she dedicated to those 200+ hand-stuffed noodles, that their fate was to be zapped in a microwave, I think she may have died right then and there. Sometimes being blissfully ignorant is the best thing for everyone, and that’s what best friends are for – especially in a wedding-related crisis– to keep you unaware of the things you can’t control, so you can continue to savor a moment.
In 2010, a car accident claimed the earthly life of my dearest, sweetest Nonna. At her memorial service, Akash gave a beautiful speech and said something that I hadn’t heard him express before. He said that his conversations with my Nonna, alone in the kitchen, were some of his favorite memories of the entire wedding planning process. As he watched her stir the sauce and helped her chop the basil, he felt connected to our family and our heritage and said that the love from her cooking filled every corner of our home.
I try to put that same love into each meal that goes on our table, whether it be a bowl of Cheerios or her homemade manicotti. It’s usually combined with a mix of exhaustion and stress, but I try to always remember the love for at least one stir. I have also been letting my kids help me cook dinner, which reminds me of a magnet I once saw that said, “Letting your child ‘help’ you is the quickest way to discover that you’re the world’s biggest control freak”. It usually doubles the clean-up time, but I know my Nonna would be proud to see my four-year-old son, Roman, whom we named in her honor, expertly cutting zucchini with such a skillful pride. I also use a microwave, because anyone who has read my bio knows that it’s the only way to guarantee hot coffee when you have small children.
4 – 14 oz cans of organic crushed tomatoes
½ cup of good red wine (that you would drink!)
3 cloves of fresh garlic, diced
Handful of basil leaves chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt/Pepper to taste
A squeeze of lemon juice
In a large saucepan, sauté garlic with a tablespoon of olive oil for three minutes until slightly toasted. Add tomatoes, wine, basil, olive oil, and a dash of lemon juice and simmer over medium heat until tomatoes break down and the sauce reduces (about 2 hours). Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside. This can be done the day before, and don’t forget that extra sauce is easy to freeze and can be used later!
2 – 8oz containers of ricotta cheese
1 – 16 oz ball of fresh mozzarella cut into small cubes (depending on how cheesy you want it to be, you may only end up using ¾ of the ball)
1 ½ cups frozen chopped spinach thawed and drained
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh grated parmesan cheese for topping
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine all filling ingredients in a large bowl.
While you are combining the ingredients, cook a package of manicotti noodles on the stove in boiling water with a touch of olive oil to prevent them from sticking. When the noodles are cooked, and while they are still warm, carefully stuff them with the cheese filling. They should be full, but not bursting.
Put a layer of your sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish and line up your stuffed manicotti noodles in a row and top with a layer of sauce. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and put in the oven for approximately 30 minutes until heated through and the sauce/cheese starts to bubble on the top. Let cool for at least seven minutes before serving.
It’s good to set aside a couple ladle’s full of sauce and serve the manicotti hot with the extra sauce.
Vegetable Pakora Recipe
2 cups chickpea flour
4 tablespoon oil
2 Tsp ground cumin
2 tsp salt
1 cup water
2-3 green chilies
1 small cauliflower cut in small pieces
2 cups spinach chopped
2 cups onions chopped
Mix batter ingredients well set aside for 1/2 hour. Add the vegetables to the batter and mix well. Form small balls with the dough (about the size of a golf ball) and then flatten between your palms to form a small pancake. Deep fry in oil until browned. Drain on paper towel and serve warm with mint or tamarind chutney.
Marissa B. Niranjan is a quarter Italian, only child, married to an Indian who happens to be an identical twin. She loves making things from scratch, but is not afraid to use a microwave. Okay, maybe she’s a little afraid, but she does it anyway.
Wow. I felt drawn into the moment … What an extraordinary Nonna! Thank you for sharing the savor of these precious moments …
Love this piece! Manicotti for dinner please!
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Beautiful fusion of cultures Marissa! Bless your Nonna and its manicotti for dinner at our house:)
Thank you so much, Swati! Nothing makes me happier than thinking of my Nonna’s manicotti cooking away in your beautiful home with your beautiful family. I hope you had a wonderful holiday! xx
Bella figlia. Thank you for sharing this story. I experienced so many emotions reading it. Pride for a beautiful talented daughter, happiness thinking about the wedding and your nonna. How I still miss her.
Something tells me I’ll be making manicotti soon. 😉