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Beyond Boyardee

(article, Tina Vasquez)

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When I first heard about Anna Boiardi’s cookbook, Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family, I was incredulous. After all, Boiardi comes from the same Italian-American family responsible for all that preservative-and sodium-laden "pasta" that slides out of its cans in one goopy, mushy thwop.


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But Boiardi’s cookbook is solid in the made-from-scratch department, and versatile, too, featuring both recipes for busy weeknights and leisurely afternoons. 

In the special-occasion category, Boiardi includes her Great-Uncle Hector’s homemade Tagliatelle with Tomato Sauce "Il Giardino." It's Hector's face that appears on each and every can of Chef Boyardee, and it's the Il Giardino sauce that launched the Chef Boyardee brand in 1924, when patrons of Hector’s Cleveland restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, couldn’t get enough of the sauce and began requesting portions to take home in milk bottles.

A sucker for “only in America” success stories, I was moved by Boiardi’s account of her hardworking immigrant family. Boiardi's great-grandfather and great-uncles arrived in America with little education but more restaurant experience; after working as waiters, cooks, and maître d’s in various New York City restaurants, they eventually built a comestible empire. 

Originally from Piacenza, Italy, Boiardi’s family settled in New Jersey. Boiardi herself was born in Piacenza, and only moved to the U.S. as an adult; she currently teaches classes in New York City to those interested in cooking for their families on limited time. The feed-a-family-in-mere-minutes theme recurs throughout Delicious Memories, which features such Italian-American classics as lasagne, chicken cacciatore, and veal cutlets, though you probably wouldn't choose Boiardi’s common interpretations of these dishes as your favorites.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="The penne rigate recipe contains only six ingredients."] 

What Boiardi’s cookbook is good for, however, are her family’s versions of less-explored Italian fare. Chances are you’ve never eaten anything like her Nonna Anna’s Nonna Anna’s Polenta Pasticciata, a seriously delicious baked polenta layered like lasagna, with a tomato-spiked mushroom sauce and two different cheeses. Also impressive is her family’s Tortelli Piacentini, a stuffed pasta dish special to Piacenza and unlikely to be found elsewhere. Boiardi’s version is stuffed with whole-milk ricotta and spinach and covered with sage brown butter. The tortelli is one of the few time-consuming recipes in Delicious Memories, but it’s truly worth the trouble.

Each recipe in Boiardi’s cookbook is prefaced by a charming anecdote about its origins, and though quite a few deviate from the Italian theme of the book (meatloaf, potato salad, etc.), each recipe will feed a family with very little effort. 

It’s rare to find a cookbook with recipes that I want to try more than once. But two of Boiardi’s pasta recipes are going to remain in heavy rotation in my home, thanks to their simplicity and ability to provide something filling and delicious in almost no time at all.

The first is what Boiardi calls her Leaving-Home Penne Rigate with Broccoli, a recipe of her mother’s that she’s been eating since she was a child. With just six simple ingredients — including salt and pepper — this recipe will require you to rethink what you’ve learned about cooking vegetables. 

The pasta gets “sauced” by broccoli you pretty much cook to death. It won’t be the vibrant green color you’re accustomed to, but, as Boiardi writes, “The broccoli cooks long enough to turn soft and buttery. When you work it all together with your wooden spoon — broccoli, olive oil, and cheese — the broccoli turns into a sauce.” Essentially, you end up with pasta flecked with Parmesan and broccoli. If you can find whole-wheat penne rigate, this is a delicious, nutritious dinner, and a surefire way to get picky kids to eat their greens.

My second new go-to dinner is Boiardi’s Paglia E Fieno, which means “straw and hay.” Two types of pasta get used in this recipe: regular spaghetti (straw) and spinach spaghetti (hay). In about 25 minutes, you’ve got a luscious pasta dinner featuring a creamy mixture of shallots, butter, cream, Parmesan cheese, and small chunks of baked ham. 

Boiardi’s recipe just heats the ham through by sautéing it for five minutes with the shallots. The ham is much more appealing crisp (and becomes more pancetta-like, as in a carbonara), so I browned the ham in a skillet first and then added the shallots. This small change-up made a huge difference in flavor and texture, but the rest of the recipe is pitch-perfect for those nights when you want something easy and decadent without having to resort to fast food.

It’s not often that we get invited into a brand in such a personal way. By sharing her family’s amazing story and their delightful food, Boiardi may win over legions of food snobs who once turned their nose up at Chef Boyardee, but who will now happily eat Chef Boiardi — myself included.

p(bio). Tina Vasquez is a hardcore home cook in Los Angeles. After years as a closeted food nerd, she now writes about cooking and food regularly for websites, magazines, and local newspapers.

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