Heart of the kitchen: sharing meals with her big Italian family taught Diane Scalia that homemade food—served with love—satisfies the body and feeds the spirit - article includes recipes

Heart of the kitchen: sharing meals with her big Italian family taught Diane Scalia that homemade food—served with love—satisfies the body and feeds the spirit - article includes recipesDiane Scalia talks about her mother's old O'Keefe and Merritt range as if it were a close family member. "There's something about just turning on the heat that brings back a flood of memories," Diane says.

The chrome-and-enamel cookstove has been part of the family since 1958 when Diane's mom, Donna Scalia, moved with her family into the California home where she still lives. "My mother cooked on it every single day." She still does. When the family gathers for Sunday dinners, the range is the hub of the kitchen.

"My mom lives in the house where I grew up, and I learned to cook on that stove," says Diane, who calls herself a "chefpreneur"--an entrepreneur who caters, works as a personal chef, teaches cooking classes, and has written a cookbook. Everything she does stems from her conviction that food nurtures the body and the spirit.

"Homemade foods are healing because they remind us of a time and place we keep close in our hearts, when our lives were not so complicated," Diane says. "My work and life is really about food and family and bringing people to the table. What children want--what their parents want--is to spend time with their family. Being around the table at mealtime feeds them on a level that goes beyond sustenance. Sitting down to dinner is a ritual that builds a strong family, more than being in a car all day going from activity to activity.

1. In 4-quart Dutch oven cook onion, garlic, carrot, and celery in hot oil for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.

2. Stir in tomato sauce, tomato paste, water, wine, parsley, basil, Italian seasoning, sugar, crushed red pepper (if desired), and bay leaves.

3. Bring sauce to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 to 60 minutes or until desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Remove and discard bay leaves. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Meanwhile, prepare Handmade Italian Meatballs. Serve sauce with meatballs over spaghetti. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes 8 servings. EACH SERVING= 669 cal., 29 g total fat (10 g sat. fat), 109 mg chol., 1,537 mg sodium, 60 g carbo., 4 g fiber, 35 g protein. DAILY VALUES: 67% vit. A, 37% vit. C, 19% calcium, 34% iron.

"In my personal and professional experience, I've found that people have memories of meals with families and they go back to those memories in their minds and hearts when their lives get really manic."

That's why comfort food is so coveted. It's soothing and homey, in the Scalia home, Thursday night was pasta night. "That was our ritual," Diane says. "To this day pasta to me 'always tastes good."

The ritual of sharing familiar dishes is a bonding experience that needn't be complicated, she says. Stick with those 10 to 15 meals that your family loves, then tweak them with variations to prevent boredom. Although Diane's family had pasta every Thursday night, the meals were prepared a variety of ways. Because of that ritual, Diane loves concocting pasta suppers. For instance, she makes "flash-in-the-pan" pasta by combining olive oil, cooked noodles, chunks of cooked meat or tofu, fresh chopped tomato and basil, sea salt, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. For an Asian twist, she eliminates the tomatoes and stirs in a sauce made of peanut butter combined with bottled sesame or miso vinaigrette. Then she sprinkles everything with toasted black and white sesame seeds and cilantro. She also might substitute cooked rice--white, brown, or wild--for the pasta.

Making a special Sunday meal may take a little more time, but can be quite simple. A chicken or a beef roast can almost take care of itself once it's in the oven, she says.

"I always loved our family's Sunday dinner meals, with or without company," Diane says. "We actually had roast dinners on Sundays most of the time (rather than a traditional Italian feast), and come to think of it, my morn put a roast in and probably ignored it until it was done. And, the house would smell so good pretty much up to the time we went to bed."

The accompaniments were typically mashed potatoes and gravy with peas or green beans. "Some nights when I'm really stressed and just want to put a blanket over my head, I'll make myself mashed potatoes because it feels really comforting."


Gathering at the table for meals brings families together, says Diane Scalia. Here are some of her tips to simplify the dinner hour:

* Bakery bread or fresh rolls are a must-have for many saucy meals. "It's always good to have a mop for the juices that are left on your plate," Diane Scalia says.

* Take advantage of the weekend to get a start on meals for the upcoming week. Grill or roast extra chicken, beet, pork, or fresh vegetables to toss in a main-dish salad or to top a purchased pizza crust on busy days. Chop and store onions, celery, garlic, and other veggies for sauces and stir-flies.

* Think fresh. "Whenever possible, choose fresh garlic over garlic powder or salt; fresh herbs over dried; homemade bread crumbs and croutons. By practicing the use of fresh ingredients, their prep becomes a quick habit, as do the superior taste results," she says