When Jean Marotta opens the front door, the aroma of basil and chicken broth drifts from the kitchen of her townhouse.
“I’m making risotto,” she tells her visitor. “I’ll show you how to do it.”
Marotta ushers me into her small kitchen and we stand close together at the stove.
“You fry your onions and garlic. Then you put rice in there and cook it until the tips are translucent. Add a half a cup of wine, a half of cup of broth,” she says.
“Is it like rice? Do you put the cover on it?” the visitor asks.
“No, you’re going to keep stirring.”
After several minutes, Marotta stops stirring.
“Ah, it smells so good,” she says. “I love the warm feeling in the kitchen.”
‘Momma Jean’s Kitchen’
WHAT: Cookbook by Jean Marotta
HOW MUCH: $24. Available on website, www.mommajeanskitchen.com or at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany.
EVENTS: Jean Marotta will sign books at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6 at the Book House. She is also doing a “Lunch and Learn” cooking class at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27 at Price Chopper’s Market Bistro, 873 New Loudon Road, Latham.
Then she dips a teaspoon into the pot and lifts a smidgen of her warm Basil Risotto into the air with her right hand and cups her left hand under the spoon.
Ever so gently, Marotta guides the risotto to my mouth, as if I were a child or loved one.
“Be careful,” she says, warning that the spoon could be hot.
Welcome to “Momma Jean’s Kitchen,” which is not only a real place in Voorheesville, but a cookbook that Marotta wrote to preserve her family’s authentic Italian-American recipes and share other dishes that she has picked up and re-invented over the past half-century, as a wife, mother of three and a grandmother.
Self-published last fall, the 203-page book is filled with more than 140 recipes, from Caponata and Clams Casino to Italian Christmas cookies, like Cuccidatti.
Many of the recipes are accompanied by stories about who made them or why they made them. And there are dozens of photos of family members who span four generations, from Marotta’s grandmother to her own four grandchildren.
“I’m amazed how people love these stories. I never expected it,” she says.
“I didn’t write it for anyone in mind, I wrote it for my family.”
The idea for a cookbook came more than a decade ago, when her son Steven pleaded with her to write down her recipes.
“When I started this book, I didn’t have recipes,” she says.
Tony, her husband of 54 years, encouraged her, too.
And then somehow it became a bigger project.
Marotta called the College of Saint Rose and found a grad student to design the book.
Joan Heffler, a Schenectady photographer, shot the cover photo in the Guilderland kitchen of Jean’s son Steven. Family and friends helped with proofreading and technical support, including setting up a website.
Born in the Mohawk Valley city of Little Falls, Jean Antonucci lived in Dolgeville when she was little and moved to Albany when she was 10 years old.
Her mother was 14 years old when she emigrated to America from Sant’Andrea in Calabria, Italy, and Jean’s grandmother spoke only Italian.
Her husband, Tony, was born in this country, but his parents also came from Italy.
Marotta fondly remembers all the older Italian ladies.
“There was always something cooking, and the kitchen was the largest room in the house.” That was where the family gathered, she says.
But Jean didn’t stir her first pot of sauce until she was a grown woman.
“My mother never had any patience to teach me. After I got married, she taught me.”
These days, Marotta loves to cook for her grown children, Steven, Michael and Lynn; and her teenage grandchildren: Sydney and Ally, both 16; 14-year-old Skylar and 17-year-old Zachary.
“Risotto is one of their favorites,” she says.
Her other most requested recipes are Eggplant Parmesan, Rosemary Chicken, baked in wine and herbs; and Chicken Supremes, lemony breaded cutlets with cream sauce.
In addition to the Basil Risotto, Marotta made her famous eggplant parm, tender and cloaked in marinara, for her Gazette visitor.
“You don’t come to an Italian home without eating,” she says with a smile.
“How do you get the eggplant to cut into such neat squares?” the visitor asks.
“The trick is leave it out of the oven for 15 minutes,” she says.
And forget sauce in the jar or can. “Simple marinara sauce only takes half an hour,” she says.
A little bit of home cooking goes a long way, and it’s always better than takeout, Marotta insists.
“If you just designate one night a week. It binds the family together,” she says.
“What family doesn’t like pasta? Mothers that are working can make dinner in 30 minutes. If you have marinara sauce in the fridge, you can do so many things with it.”
Marotta knows about working outside the home.
After she raised her three children, she worked for 10 years as an administrative assistant in the Secretary of the Senate’s office at the New York State Senate; then for six years she was an administrative assistant for New York State Sen. Ron Stafford.
After she retired, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream to be a nurse, a career that her parents wouldn’t allow when she was young.
“I only wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse,” Marotta says.
She enrolled at Maria College in 1999 and graduated in 2002 with a 3.9 average.
“I loved every minute of it,” she says. “I’ve always been intrigued with the human body.”
For four years, she helped deliver babies and cared for new moms at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany.
She now works two or three days a week in St. Peter’s pre-admissions testing department, helping patients prepare for surgery.
A few years ago, she took a break from her job and traveled to Italy with her son Michael.
During the trip, they visited the Marotta family in a small town north of Naples.
They kissed and hugged and shared a six-course meal with 40 people.
“We had a wonderful time. They welcomed us with open arms and wonderful food. Everyone brought pictures and told stories about our relatives.”
In Voorheesville, Jean Marotta is determined to keep that Italian tradition going.
“When you have the family in the kitchen, they are sharing their lives, their days,” she says.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]
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