My maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. Visiting their home meant hearing Italian and English dialogue, seeing lots of hand gesturing and eating tons of food. You were repeatedly told mangi, as there was always food on the table. As the bambino, I was hugged by both family members and paisanos as they exclaimed how much I had grown. Everyone was welcomed into their home with warmth and generosity.
When I recently visited Pam Ronstadt in her Tucson home, it reminded me of those childhood excursions. Ronstadt, wife of former City Council member Fred Ronstadt, had filled out a Best of Tucson™ ballot proclaiming she made the best Greek food in town, and I was assigned to check it out.
I arrived at her midtown abode on a stormy afternoon, but the atmosphere inside was warm and inviting. Ronstadt had asked friends and family over to eat the food she prepared. There were people talking and laughing, a child playing and a table full of food. I was presented with a tasting menu and encouraged to dig in.
Ronstadt had prepared chicken kabobs, cheese phyllo triangles, grilled halloumi (cheese) with apple slices and olive bread, hummus, taramosalata (carp-roe spread), tzatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), marinated olives, horiatiki salata (farmers' salad) and lima bean salata. For dessert, she served triple-cream cheese with thyme honey and pistachios, and offered store-bought pistachio spice cupcakes and bitter chocolate cookies to round out the menu. It was an impressive spread. Ronstadt learned how to cook Greek food from her friend Maria, a first-generation Greek.
As I sampled the food, Ronstadt told me the ingredients of each item. The chicken kabobs were prepared with white table mushrooms, and the chicken was marinated in oil with mint, thyme and onion. The cheese phyllo triangles were made with feta, farmers' Greek and hard pecorino cheeses, red onion, dill, parsley, an egg and phyllo dough. The horiatiki salata contained tomato, cucumbers, feta cheese, parsley, red onion, garlic, lemon juice, oil and pepper. We continued around the table and discussed each dish.
Recipes were not followed here; Ronstadt cooks from memory and taste.
All of the food was fresh and delicious. Although I missed moussaka and spanakopita, I was satisfied with the variety of food. Ronstadt's versions of hummus and tzatziki excelled, because they were not overpowering.
"It's very important to use Greek yogurt in tzatziki," she explains. "It's key. Recipes call for five to eight cloves of garlic. I used two. I don't over-garlic it."
The same could be said for her hummus. It was light and creamy without a strong garlic taste.
Two dishes stood out due to their distinct flavors. One was taramosalata, made with carp roe and olive oil blended in a food processor. On the side, white bread is soaked in milk and then squeezed out. The bread is added to the fish mixture to get a smooth consistency. Lemon juice and parsley are added at the end.
"This is the only funky thing I did," says Ronstadt. "It's a traditional Greek dish, so that's why I included it. It's a poor man's caviar. It's not for everyone; it's an acquired taste." When I said I liked it, Ronstadt was pleased and said we would be the only two who did.
The other dish I marveled over was the lima bean salata. I am not a fan of lima beans, but Ronstadt's dish made me rethink my position. With lima beans, feta cheese, lemon juice, salt and pepper, the dish was simple to prepare and quite tasty.
For dessert, I sampled the triple-cream cheese with thyme honey and pistachios. Ronstadt purchased a Saint-André cheese and put toasted pistachio nuts on top. She warmed honey mixed with thyme to serve on the side. Chunks of raisin bread sat next to the cheese. The combination of the cheese, nuts and honey was quite enjoyable. Ronstadt has a knack of mixing simple ingredients into a flavorful dish.
Her family agrees. While eating the Greek feast, Ronstadt's sister-in-law raved about a white chocolate macadamia pie Ronstadt made 10 years ago. To remember a pie made that long ago, it must have been good.
"I was supposed to do dessert for family dinner," recalls Ronstadt. "I just kind of concocted it. My sister-in-law said she wanted that dessert again. I made it once; it was the perfect storm."
While Ronstadt is modest about her culinary skills, she credits her longtime love of cooking for her success. "When I was a kid, I lived for Saturdays. Instead of me being in front of a cartoon, I was watching Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet. That's what I would do on Saturdays. ... By the time I was 8 or 9, I was heavily contributing to the family meals. In high school, I did a lot of the cooking."
Her love of cooking continued into college when she worked as a waitress. When business was slow, she would "literally whip up my customers' food and serve it to them.
"I love food, and I love to cook. ... I love the feel of cooking, the smell, the presentation and ultimately, it's about making whomever I'm serving happy. I love to feed people."
In that vein, Ronstadt gave me a doggie bag to go and thanked me for the opportunity to be featured. I ventured off into the stormy afternoon with good food and a story to tell.
Ronstadt says she is Irish and German, but with her hospitality and love of feeding people, there must be Italian in there somewhere.