MIMMETTA LOMONTE Greene should stand forth as Exhibit A for those who argue that great cooks are born, not made. When she came to the United States from her native Sicily nearly 15 years ago, Greene was a student, not a cook. "My mother never let me cook," she explained. "But I began cooking on my first day in the United States. I'd watched her cook and I'd eaten a lot, so I knew how dishes should taste in the end."
How she managed to begin, to coax ingredients into the proper form and consistency, much less taste, she can't explain. She just knew.
"Easter is a very important family holiday in Sicily," she continued, "so the first Easter I was here, I was upset and lonesome. I decided to make a cassata [a traditional holiday and feast dessert]. I knew how it should look, but I couldn't find the candied fruit I needed. But I did find some sun-dried papaya and bought apricots and cherries and candied my own fruit. I did it from memory.
"My mother sent me recipes in letters. I still have them. They're all discolored and oily now, but I discovered I knew even more than she did. I'd watched my grandfather, too. He was a great cook, an artist with food."
With this perspective Greene plunged ahead, painting her recollections of native food and improvising in her new setting.
"It didn't occur to me to adjust my food to the American taste," she said. "I object to what is done in restaurants here. The way they present food isn't really Italian. They serve spaghetti and meat balls. We never eat that, and with all the sauce they use you can't taste anything.
"I know when I cook if I present someone with the head of an octopus or a lamb, they probably will be upset. But there are other dishes people will like that you never find in restaurants. Italian cooking is very simple, very basic. You can walk into a supermarket and find almost anything you need.
"We are only three [her second husband, architect Ron Thomas, and daughter, Vivien], but I discovered I would rather cook for friends than send them cards or presents. So there are always other people about, and I spend a lot of time cooking, but if I am going to put so much into cooking, I want to make food that means something to me."
That means, naturally, food from Sicily and from other parts of Italy as well, although Greene also cooks Chinese and Indian dishes, using restaurant meals rather than recipe books to give her a frame of reference. She will show slides of Sicily to friends and to students who come into her home to learn her cooking methods. They include displays of fish and vegetables, bright red tomatoes being made into a concentrate in the sun, chickpeas being harvested and plants pregnant with basil leaves.
"Real Sicilian cooking is pretty much unheard of here," she begins in the intense way of a committed teacher. "It's Itailian, but it's something more. It is influenced a little bit by the Middle East, by the Spanish, and we even have sweet and sour dishes like the Chinese. Spices came to us late and were very expensive, so cooks flavored the food with what was available -- wild fennel, bay leaves -- and they still do."
Like almost every other good cook, Greene has dreamed of writing a cook-book. Unlike most of them, she is actually doing it. To perfect her recipes and to test her techniques on others, she began giving classes this past year. Her kitchen is small and she is a meticulous worker, so only three at a time are invited to join her. A series of four lessons, each a complete meal with wine, costs $60. She is also considering the possibility of offering menu and recipe advice plus limited catering to persons who want help in home entertaining.
"I've always done things with my hands," she said the other day as she searched for a further explanation of her natural talent for cooking. "I refinished the wooden furniture in the house and actually helped re-do the house. I watched a carpenter working on a door and thought I could do it better myself. So I became a carpenter."
Those who want to share Greene's cooking knowledge may call her at 965-4672. She plans to begin a series of classes later this month. She is not taking any carpentry jobs, however, at least not until her cookbook is finished.
In the meantime, here are several of her recipes.
Mrs. Greene's recipes are informally worded with considerable flexibility in ingredients and some flexibility in preparation. She offers, first, her advice on cooking commerical dried pasta, then a Sicilian pasta dish, her bean soup, beef roasted in the style of Palermo, squash with sweet and sour flavoring, and baked pears. ON COOKING PASTA
I use domestic and imported brands of pasta and get very good results with all of them. But one sure way to end up with slimy or lumpy pasta is to follow the directions on time without ever checking, or neglecting to stir the pasta while it cooks.
For 1 pound of pasta, pour 11 to 12 cups of water into a pot. Bring water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add a generous tablespoon of salt before you add the pasta. If cooking long pasta such as spaghetti, break it in half before cooking; that will make it much easier to handle when rolling it on a fork without the help of a spoon (the way Italians eat their pasta). Add the pasta and start stirring immediately with a long fork. After 1 to 2 minutes of stirrings well down to the bottom center and sides and from the bottom up, cover. As the water reaches a boil again, remove lid, stir and keep heat high enough for the water to boil without overflowing. Stir occasionally.
After 5 minutes or so start checking for consistency. Once Pasta hangs limply from the fork, it is overcooked. So take a piece, cut it and check the cross-section. As long as you see a distinct white core, the pasta is not done. When the white has virtually disappeared, but the pastaa is still a bit on the chewy side, it is ready.
Immediately add a cup or two of cold water to the pot. This stops the cooking. Pour into a colander over a sink. Do not rinse the pasta. Shake well and turn into a bowl to mix with sauce. Choose a wide and shallow serving dish instead of one that is deep and narrow. The wide dish makes the pasta easier to get at and prevents it from lumping together or steaming and loosing texture. Serve immediately. BEAN SOUP (8 to 10 servings) 1 pound dried beans, kidney preferred Olive oil (enough to generously cover the bottom of the pot) 2 large sweet potatoes 2 or 3 ribs celery, diced 1 package (10 ounces) spincah, or an equivalent amount of escarole or another green, leafy vegetable 1 large onion, diced A few sprigs of watercress or parsely, chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight. Drain. Place all ingredients in pot, beginning with oil. Add enough water to come about 4 inches above vegetables. Bring to a boil, then simmer covered until beans are very tender. Add additional water during cooking as needed to keep liquid level above vegetables.
Serve with grated cheese or, if you have some ends of grating cheese, cut any wax or dirt from the rind, cut the cheese in small pieces and add it to the soup during cooking. PASTA WITH TUNA IN RED SAUCE (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound spaghetti or rigatoni 3 cups tomato sauce (recipe below) 1 can (7 ounces) tuna, well drained 4 teaspoons pine nuts 4 teaspoons currants 1 clove garlic, minced 1 handful chopped fresh parsley
Prepare tomato sauce, or reheat. When hot, add all ingredients except pasta. Mix well and allow to stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Cook pasta to al dente stage, drain and toss with tuna sauce. Serve at once. BASIC TOMATO SAUCE 4 generous cups tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed and cut into small pieces over a bowl to catch juices* Olive oil, enough to come 1/2-inch up the side of a medium saucepan 2 small onions, minced 2 cloves garlic, peeled but whole Salt and pepper to taste
*Use canned Italian plum tomatoes when fresh tomatoes are not in season.
Heat oil. Saute onion and garlic until onion is soft. Remove garlic and discard. Increase heat to high. Add tomatoes and cook uncovered for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium, add salt, add cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If sauce becomes thick too quickly, lower heat or thin out with some of the reserved juice.Finished sauce should be thick, not soupy, with pieces of tomato through it. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. If not using for above recipe, season with a small amount of chopped parsley or basil. ROAST BEEF PALERMO STYLE (6 to 8 servings) 2 to 3 pounds boneless rump or round roast, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices and trimmed of surface fat 3 tablespoons olive oil, or enough to coat all the slices 2 sprigs fresh parsley, minced 1/2 onion, chopped 1 small clove garlic, minced 1 cup plain bread crumbs, or enough to coat the slices 1 tablespoon grated romano cheese Salt and pepper
Mix oil with parsley, onion and garlic. Coat meat slices with this mixture. Mix bread crumbs, cheese, a modest amount of salt and pepper. Spread on a plate and coat slices with breading,. Broil or bake in a preheated 450-degree oven. When the pieces begin to sizzle, turn then. When they sizzle again, meat is done. Meat should be cooked through, not rare. Total cooking time should be about 15 minutes.
Note: This recipe may also be made using veal, pork or beef liver. SWEET AND SOUR BUTTERNUT SQUASH (4 to 6 servings as a side dish) 1 butternut squash Olive oil, enough to cover squash while frying 1/3 to 1/2 cup red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste 1 clove garlic, slightly crushed but still in its skin 4 or 5 mint leaves 1/2 teaspoon each, salt and pepper
Prepare squash by peeling it, then slicing the seedless top apart into 1/4-inch round and the bottom (after removing seeds) into 1/4-inch sections. Stir sugar into vinegar. Sprinkle salt on squash slices and fry into hot oil over medium-high heat. When squash is soft but not soggy, remove to paper towels. Pous off oil, turn heat high and return squash to pan with vinegar-sugar mixture. Turn slices briefly, then transfer to a china, glass or stainless steel bowl. Pour on liquid, add mint, pepper and garlic. Let sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours before serving as part of an antipasto or as a side dish. BAKED PEARS (6 to 12 servings) 6 ripe pears, peeled, cut in half lengthwide and cored 3 tablespoons sugar 3/4 pint (1 1/2 eight-ounce cartons) heavy cream, whipped 1/4 ounce (2 squares) semisweet chocolate, cut into slivers with a sharp knife Ground cinnamom, to taste
Heat over to 400 degrees. Place pear halves, cut side up, in a shallow baking pan. Pears should fit snuggly. Sprinkle with sugar and some water. Pour more water into the pan to barely cover the bottom.
Bake for 1 hour, or until soft but not mushy. Add water is needed during cooking and baste once or twice with pan juices. Remove from oven and turn pears flat side down in the pan. Let them cool. Transfer to a serving plate, flat side up and chill.
Pour off syrup from baking dish. (If it has caramelized, add a little water and stir over low heat.) Reserve.
Just before serving, whip cream and mound some over each pear. Sprinkle chocolate and cinnamon over each mound and trickle syrup over all.