What was a typical dinner or family meal like for you at home growing up?
Growing up in Hampton, Virginia with three brothers and a very Italian extended family was always LOUD and included a noisy, happy dinner table filled with incredible, homemade meals. My mother is, as I loving like to say, a redneck, country girl with a hand for great biscuits and incredible gravy, the best fried chicken and the most tender roast beef. My father’s side prepared traditional Italian meals with fresh roma tomatoes grown in my Papa’s garden and pastas made by hand. Our Italian family were our neighbors as I was growing up. Yep; all of my cousins lived in houses that created a semi-circle around my Nana and Papa’s house. I had pasta every day!
So what is your favorite recipe to make for your family?
My favorite food to prepare is Italian. My family is always sitting around our table with a fork and spoon ready to twist some pasta!
If you had to pair a piece of music to this recipe, what sort of music would it be?
As luck would have it, I am now firmly grounded in bluegrass music and get to enjoy the mandolin plucking through my songs. I always find it just a touch Italian sounding. If I paired a song with my pasta sauce, it might be one that I wrote about my Italian immigrant grandparents and their journey from Lianciano, Italy to the shores of the United States called “She Goes Sailing”.
Where are some of your favorite places to get southern classics?
My mother’s kitchen is still my all-time favorite diner to go to for biscuits and gravy though I must say that my darling husband, Rick Stanley, and my mother-in-law, Yvonne Stanley, are fine southern cooks. It’s hard to beat homemade southern food prepared in the kitchens of people that love you.
After playing a late show, what is your guilty pleasure food?
Lol…my guilty pleasure food after a big show is always…wait for it…PASTA…or pizza…better yet, pasta and pizza.
What’s a typical day like for you (food-wise) when you’re at home and how is that different from when you are on tour?
When I’m at home, I like to prepare fresh foods for Rick and myself. I quit buying processed food a few years back and have been enjoying the art of cooking with ingredients that I grab from my herb garden and purchase from the Nashville Farmers Market. Things get a little tricky when we are touring because sometimes our only option for eating is fast food. I try to make good choices but old habits and an empty stomach lead me astray. A girl has to have a cheeseburger every now and then.
Tell us about one memorable meal you’ve had during your travels. What did it involve?
The most memorable meal for my beloved Poor Mountain Boys and myself was in Vologda, Russia performing as a guest of the US Embassy for an audience of very enthusiastic Russians! We were honored by a large historical meal prepared for us and served by Russians donning traditional folk costumes. They danced for us and shared some of their delightful Russian vodka! I can’t really name what I ate, but after many salutes with the homemade vodkas it really didn’t’ matter.
What is your favorite spice/ingredient?
If I had to choose one single favorite spice I suppose I will go with homegrown basil. I love the smell of it when I snap it off the
plant and I love how it enhances what I’m cooking. It’s great in salads and on sandwiches too.
If you could pick one food to eat every day for the rest of your life, what would that be?
Easy, peasey, I could eat pasta everyday and never get tired of it.
Have you ever had any complete cooking failures at home? (I do it all the time, but they make for funny stories, at least.)
Oh, I’ve had some downright disasters in the kitchen. One that comes to mind is at one Thanksgiving gathering. Rick and I were preparing a huge meal for about 30 people. As I was putting the cooked food in my pretty dishes, I dropped the whole pan of butter beans on the floor. What a mess but it made for the most humorous topic of conversation throughout the evening and the only thing I can now recall about that long ago dinner, so there you go.
Are there foods that you won’t eat / don’t like?
To my husband’s horror, I am not a fan of okra. He loves it in soups or fried and l love it on someone else’s plate.
Where do you get your recipes? Any favorite cookbooks?
Most of my recipes are hand-me downs or something I whip up myself. I am actually working on my own cookbook so I reference my notes from time to time.
Do you have a favorite brew/wine?
I find that I love to cook with wine as much as I enjoy sipping it these days. I also love to throw a beer into the mix now and again. The hoppy taste can really make my chili pop. When drinking wine I like Chianti-go figure. When cooking with it, I choose the cheapest reds or whites. Beer? Amstel Light is my stein of choice.
Could you give us a secret killer recipe?
My favorite Italian sauce is an easy one!
-1/8-1/4 cup of olive oil seasoned with a little chicken base enough to have about a quarter inch coating the bottom of pan
-4-6 boneless chicken thighs (the more the merrier)
-1 large chopped onion
-4-5 cloves chopped garlic
-Large green or red pepper diced
-4-6 diced zucchini
-16 ounces fresh sliced mushrooms
-Fresh basil (I use lots)
-Fresh parsley ( I use lots)
-Fresh oregano (not too much…just to taste)
-(2)- 28 ounce cans crushed tomatoes
-1 heaping maybe another ½ cup of Red Wine
Heat oil in large stock or cooking pan and stir in the chicken base (about a tablespoons worth)
Add garlic but do not let it brown, keep oil where the garlic just seasoning the oil
Add chicken in and start to brown I, turning it over as needed
Stir in onion and pepper and cook until slightly limp
Add wine and let it come to a baby boil
Add mushrooms and zucchini and stir in until coated with everything
Add the crushed tomatoes and herbs.
I let this pot simmer for 2-3 hours stirring occasionally. Usually by then the chicken is so tender it starts to shred. This is a chunky sauce that tastes great over a grilled half of eggplant or any pasta. It’s my favorite!
Finally for Battered and Brewed, if you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be and what would you drink?
Hmmm…I would love to have a drink with my Italian grandmother, Maria Bucci Ulisse. I lost her when I was just 11 years old and did not get the chance to hear in her own voice, complete with the sweetest broken English, about her life in Italy and the adventure she made getting to the United States. She had a fascinating story of survival and romance. I would love to sit on a beautiful terrace on a day filled with sunshine, mandolin music in the background, her pasta on the table, a big bottle of my Papa’s homemade Chianti and all the time in the world to fire questions at her until my longing was emptied out…now I’m all nostalgic. Wouldn’t that just be something?
A big thank you to Donna for taking a few minutes and answering our questions – make sure to check out her website, http://www.donnaulisse.com/. Donna is a bluegrass singer songwriter with 9 albums, formerly a country artist on Atlantic Records. IBMA Songwriter of Year Nominee 2012, 2013, 2014 & 2015. She also enjoy teaching songwriting workshops at festivals, schools, and through her traveling workshop called Songwriting Escape.