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Dinner From Dented Cans

(by Nancy DeRosa)

Cooking a meal was an important part of my mother's day. She was a divorced mother of three and worked full-time, but a hot meal was always on the table by the end of the day. It was the one constant in my life, and the meals that my mother cooked for my two brothers and me conveyed love, comfort, and consistency. At the age of eight, I would walk home from school with my brothers to an empty house. Sometimes that house was very lonely, but that night we would sit together and share our day. We couldn't afford to go out for dinner, but a home-cooked meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes was the highlight of our day.

From time to time, we would visit a house to pick up cans of food and other grocery items. Everything my mom made was delicious, and it never mattered to me if some of those cans were dented, but I didn’t understood why we went there—I thought Mom was just friends with the couple that owned the house. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was a food pantry.

Monday was my mother’s day off from work as a manicurist, where she was beloved by her customers. I was happy and excited to come home from school on those days where Mom had a glass of milk waiting on the table for me. That simple gesture made me feel so cared for, and she would put extra effort into Monday dinners. She made the best fried chicken I've ever tasted, and she tried to teach me how to make it (laughing when all the bread crumbs fell off), but mine was never as good. Being in the kitchen with her is one of my fondest memories, even when it was my turn to dry the dishes.

There were days when my mother was stressed and overwhelmed, and I would find her crying in her bedroom. I was too young to understand her troubles—seeing her like that just made me sad and anxious, and I didn't know how to comfort her. As an adult and a mother of three myself, I now understand how difficult her life was, the fear and uncertainty. Having a good cry was the release she needed. And I especially appreciate all those wonderful meals. When she went marketing, I sat in the car by the basement door as she went up and down in the elevator of our apartment building with her fold-up shopping cart filled with groceries. I never take for granted that I can drive into my own garage with my groceries. My mother taught me, by example, that the simple things in life can bring the most joy, and I have never forgotten that lesson. But I still wish I could have done something to lighten her load, to bring her peace and happiness.

(Mom and Kelly)

Without realizing it, that happiness and peace came about when I gave birth to my daughter Kelly. Mondays and milk after school morphed into dinner at my house with Mom, Kelly, and oh yes, my husband Jack. From the day Kelly could eat solid food, her choice was always pasta. My mother would come over and love up her Kelly like crazy, while I made pasta with broccoli, and I loved seeing her so happy. I’d sauté garlic sliced thin in olive oil and butter, mix the sauce with fat al dente rigatoni, and of course make it snow with tons of Parmesan cheese. I always made extra for Mom to take home.

I lost my mother 28 years ago, too young, too soon. But my memories of her wonderful meals, and my great gift of being able to reciprocate, still feed my soul.


Nancy DeRosa is a writer in Purchase, New York. She is the author of the series Food for Thought (First Course, Second Course, and Just Desserts). Her cooking show “Food for Thought” is on Footprint TV. She can be found at

Pasta with Broccoli

1 lb. ziti or rigatoni

2 T. salt

4 T. extra virgin olive oil.

2 T. butter

2 cloves garlic, sliced thin

2 large heads broccoli

1 c. white wine, optional

hot pepper flakes, to taste

grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

Fill a big pot with water, bring to a rolling boil, salt the water liberally, and add pasta.

Stir pasta and cook al dente, checking after about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 c. water.

Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat, and brown garlic.

Cut broccoli into florets; peel and thinly slice the stems.

Discard garlic, and sauté broccoli in the flavored oil/butter mix until softened.

Add reserved pasta water and optional white wine.

Combine broccoli with pasta, adding pepper flakes and Parmesan to taste.

Note: You can substitute 2 c. chicken broth for the butter to make a healthier version of this dish. You can also add cooked carrots or peas, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, and a sprinkle of panko or Italian bread crumbs.


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