The Man, The Can: Recipes Of The Real Chef Boyardee

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:04 pm

Unlike the friendly but fictional food faces of Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Chef Boyardee — that jovial, mustachioed Italian chef — is real. Ettore "Hector" Boiardi (that's how the family really spells it) founded the company with his brothers in 1928, after the family immigrated to America from Italy.

Though America came to know him as Chef Boyardee — in the apron and trademark tall hat — Anna Boiardi knew him simply as Uncle Hector. Anna carried on her family's culinary tradition; her new book, Delicious Memories, is part cookbook, part family history and part homage to her ancestors — immigrants who made their way in a new country.

The Beginning Of A Business

"Italian food at the turn of the century wasn't what it is today," Boiardi tells NPR's Michele Norris. "All of the finer restaurants were French restaurants."

The family settled in Cleveland, where they thought they could open a successful Italian restaurant. "They had a real understanding of food," Boiardi says. It was a generation of people who "grew up in kitchens, so food was really their education."

Chef Boiardi's Restaurant in Cleveland was a success, and customers expressed interest in learning how to make Italian dishes at home. So the Boiardis started sending people home with pasta, sauce and cheese and teaching them how to cook, heat and assemble the dishes themselves.

That's what got the family thinking: " 'What if we started jarring our sauce and selling it? Would it sell?' " Boiardi says. "That was really this germ of an idea ... that eventually turned into Chef Boyardee."

The new company played a major role in introducing Italian food to the U.S. — and also changed the way American supermarket shelves were stocked. "At the time, when they started Chef Boyardee [in] 1928, they were the largest importers of Parmesan cheese from Italy," Boiardi explains. "They also brought in tons of olive oil."

At a time when Italian food was not widely consumed, finding high-quality ingredients for their growing operation was a challenge. The family chose to place their factory in Milton, Pa., so that they would be close to their tomato supply. "They had to convince people to change their crops so that they would have enough tomatoes," Boiardi says. "At the height, when they were there [in Milton], they were producing about 250,000 cans a day." The family also grew their own mushrooms in the Milton plant.

During World War II, the U.S. military commissioned the Boyardee company to produce Army rations. The factory, which had been doing "civilian production" for supermarkets, began operating 24 hours a day for wartime efforts. Once the war was over, the Boiardi family sold the company to a larger conglomerate — it was the only way to ensure that everyone working there would continue to have jobs, Boiardi explains.

Traditions, Tried And True

Nowadays, packaged food made with preservatives — which has long been Boyardee's bread and butter — has fallen out of favor, as chefs have embraced fresh, organic foods. But Chef Anna Boiardi doesn't mind that her family name is blazoned across containers meant to be thrown in the microwave.

"There is room for all different types of food," she says. "There are people that are working, and their kids have to come home and make something for themselves. ... I try to inspire people to cook for themselves, but even when I was growing up — and my mom is a fabulous cook — she would open up a can of Chef Boyardee for us on certain nights when there just wasn't enough time."

But, Boiardi adds, it's important to know how to cook, so Delicious Memories is full of Italian-inspired options (see her recipes below).

For an appetizer, there are Stuffed Zucchini Boats — savory squash baked full of breadcrumbs, ham and pecorino cheese — which Boiardi describes as "really a great side dish for anything you're making in the summer."

For pasta, Boiardi recommends her "Leaving-Home" Penne Rigate With Broccoli — a recipe that she took to college with her because it only required one pot. (It's kid-friendly, too: The sauce turns very creamy, and kids "don't even think about the fact that they are eating vegetables.")

For the main course, try Apple Cider-Rosemary Roasted Chicken. "Soak[ing] the chicken in apple cider vinegar, which is a trick my grandmother taught me," Boiardi says. "It gives it such a great flavor.

"My grandmother used to use apple cider vinegar as a panacea," Boiardi adds with a laugh. "If you have a stomachache or a headache: apple cider vinegar."

Just one of many tried-and-true traditions passed down from one Boiardi generation to the next.


Recipe: Stuffed Zucchini Boats

From 'Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family'
By Anna Boiardi

We stuff zucchini in the summertime when squash is at its best. The stuffing is made with breadcrumbs and is similar to the mixture we use for stuffing tomatoes, but with a little ham and pecorino cheese added. For a fancier occasion, you can replace the breadcrumbs with besciamella. Serve these with roast chicken or capon, or a veal roast. This is a nice dish for a party buffet because it looks pretty and is tasty at room temperature.

Serves 4

3 firm zucchini (about 1 1/4 pounds), trimmed and washed

Salt

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

1/4 onion, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

1 clove garlic, minced

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup plain, dried breadcrumbs

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 thin slice boiled ham, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon finely grated pecorino cheese

1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 large egg

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra for the baking dish

Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and scoop out the insides with a melon baller (leaving the sides of the "boats" about 1/4 inch thick). Place the scoopings on a cutting board and coarsely chop them.

Choose a baking dish large enough to hold the zucchini boats in a single layer and rub it with butter. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Set a colander in a baking dish next to the stove. Add the zucchini boats and boil 4 minutes, until they are about halfway cooked. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon to the colander and drain. Place the zucchini in a single layer in the prepared baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit.

For the stuffing, in a small saucepan, heat the 1 1/2 tablespoons oil over low heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the chopped zucchini and stir. Increase the heat to medium and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. (Turn the heat down if the mixture begins to brown.) Add the garlic, stir well, and cook 2 minutes. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Add the breadcrumbs and stir well.

Spoon the stuffing into a medium bowl and stir in the parsley, ham and cheeses. In a small bowl, beat the egg with a fork until blended. Add it to the stuffing and stir until it's completely incorporated.

Spoon the stuffing into the zucchini shells. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, and cut the butter into small pieces to dot the mounds of stuffing. Bake until the stuffing has developed a golden crust, about 35 minutes.


Recipe: 'Leaving-Home' Penne Rigate With Broccoli

From 'Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family'
By Anna Boiardi

My mom used to make this yummy, Parmesan-and-broccoli-flecked pasta a lot when we were growing up because it was a relatively painless way to get us kids to eat broccoli. And when I went to college, she packed up the recipe for me as part of a set of family recipes that she thought would be easy enough for me to make in my new apartment. This was one of the first dishes I had the courage to cook on my own, and it became a staple of my college years.

But leaving home isn't so easy. I remember the first time I set out to cook this in my new life. It wasn't until I was at the grocery store with recipe in hand that I realized that I couldn't actually read it: I never could read my mom's handwriting; I'm forever calling her up to ask her to translate her scrawl. But there I was, first time out, walking up to strangers in the supermarket asking, "Can you read this?"

These days, my friends have a habit of calling me from the supermarket at 5 p.m., looking for a suggestion for dinner. This is the recipe I give them because it's completely easy and if it's 5 o'clock and you're still in the supermarket, you can still be eating by 6:15 (assuming you don't live too far away).

Note that 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 the sauce.

Use a colander with fairly small holes (or a mesh strainer) so that the broccoli buds don't escape into the sink when you drain the pasta.

Serves 4

Salt

1 1/2 pounds broccoli, washed, stems discarded, cut into bite-size florets

1 pound penne rigate

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2/3 cup finely grated pecorino cheese, plus extra for serving

Freshly ground pepper

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Add a good handful of salt (about 1/4 cup), enough that you can taste it. Set a fine strainer in the sink. When the water comes to a boil, add the broccoli and wait until the water returns to a boil. Add the pasta and set the timer to the number of minutes recommended on the box. When the timer rings, drain the penne and broccoli in the colander, then dump them into a large serving bowl. Add the olive oil and mix well with a wooden spoon so that the pasta is coated and the bits of broccoli are well-distributed throughout. Add the cheese and stir well until you have a nice, green-speckled sauce. Sprinkle with a little extra cheese, and add some pepper.


Recipe: Apple Cider-Rosemary Roasted Chicken

From 'Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family'
By Anna Boiardi

Last time we cooked this together, I asked my mother where this recipe came from. We were in my kitchen, and she was tossing a pinch of salt over her left shoulder (into the sink — tradition is one thing, messiness another). The salt-over-the-shoulder toss is an old Italian custom — "Otherwise they say it's bad luck," she says cheerfully. (By this I gather that she's not entirely convinced that it's meaningful, but why take the chance?)

Tradition satisfied, I lift the chicken out of its apple cider vinegar bath, and pat it dry with paper towels. "I'm not really sure where it comes from," she said. "It's just ... I guess it's just the tips and tricks from everyone's best roast chicken recipe, handed down from one generation to the next."

Once the chicken is well-dried, I carefully massage olive oil, salt, and pepper into the skin. This is one of those tricks my mother was talking about: the massaging is supposed to help the seasoning enter into the skin and flesh, and make the skin crisp. Does it work? I don't know. Scientifically, I mean. But I like doing it; massaging the flesh is wonderfully tactile, and the chicken always comes out of the oven crisp-skinned and well-seasoned. So I do it. But the salt goes onto the chicken, not over my shoulder.

One thing I do know: The use of apple cider vinegar is very Italian. We consider vinegar to be extremely healthful, even curative; my doctor in Italy actually prescribed it for my skin one year. And it seems to add a special, subtle flavor to the meat. You can forgo the vegetables, but I don't because they turn the chicken into a one-pot dinner and keep it from swimming in the drippings while it roasts.

Serves 2 to 4

1 (3 1/4- to 3 1/2-pound) chicken, preferably organic

1 cup apple cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 clove garlic, unpeeled, smashed with the side of a large knife

1/2 lemon

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 medium carrots

4 inner stalks celery

1 onion, peeled and quartered

Kitchen Stuff: Medium-sized roasting pan, kitchen shears

Remove the innards, if any; throw them away or save them for stock. Place the chicken in a bowl large enough to hold it comfortably, with room to spare. Add the vinegar and enough cold water to cover the chicken completely. Let the chicken soak for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the bowl, rinse it under cold running water, and pat it completely dry, inside and out, with paper towels.

Arrange the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit.

In a roasting pan or baking dish just large enough to hold it, set the chicken, neck end down, so that you are holding its legs in the air. Sprinkle the cavity with about 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the garlic, the lemon half, and a 4-inch sprig of rosemary. Tie the legs of the chicken together: Cut a piece of string about 12 inches long. Wrap one end around one "ankle," leaving 2 to 3 inches of the string free, and the other end around the other "ankle." Pull the ends of the string to pull together the "ankles," then tie the ends together and knot. Lay the bird in the pan on its breast. Working all over the back (including the backs of the legs and the wings), rub the chicken with about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt until the salt begins to dissolve into the skin. This will take a few minutes; it's fun. Then drizzle on 1 tablespoon of the oil, and rub that all over. Be sure not to miss any nooks and crannies. Rub with about 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Now turn the bird breast side up, and repeat the entire operation with another 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Peel the carrots and the bumpy side of the celery ribs with a vegetable peeler. Remove the chicken from the pan and line up carrots and celery sticks (I alternate, but it doesn't matter) in the bottom of the pan. Set an onion quarter in each corner and set the chicken, breast side up, on top of the vegetables. Now tear up a 6-inch sprig of rosemary into 1-inch pieces and scatter them over the top of the chicken.

Put the pan in the oven and roast until the skin of the chicken is nicely browned and the juices run clear when you insert a small knife into the thigh, 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, cover the chicken with aluminum foil, and let it rest 15 to 20 minutes.

Uncover the chicken and cut it into 8 pieces with kitchen scissors. Cut the vegetables into pieces with a knife. Arrange the chicken in the center of a casserole or serving bowl and spoon the vegetables around it.

From Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family by Anna Boiardi. Copyright 2011 Anna Boiardi. Reprinted by permission of Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, they're really fictional characters meant to entice you to buy their products, and you might be tempted to add Chef Boyardee to that list.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

HECTOR BOIARDI: (as Chef Boyardee) Hello. May I come in? I am Chef Boyardee. Perhaps you have seen my picture on Chef Boyardee products at your grocers. Today, I want to tell you about a wonderful dinner for three, a dinner that only costs about 15 cents a serving.

NORRIS: Anna, welcome to the show.

ANNA BOIARDI: Thank you so much for having me.

NORRIS: This is more than just a cookbook. It's really a cookbook and a history book, and what's so striking about your family is that this is really the tale of an immigrant family that made its way. Tell us how they founded this business.

BOIARDI: And it was through their customer that they decided, you know what, what about if we started, you know, there's a real interest in our food. And what about if we started jarring our sauce and selling it? Would it sell? And that was really like this germ of an idea that they had, which eventually turned into Chef Boyardee.

NORRIS: Now, it's interesting because the company played a big role in introducing Italian food to this country but also changing the way America eats and the way grocery store shelves or start the company, imported huge amounts of olive oil and huge amounts of Parmesan. They grew their own mushrooms.

BOIARDI: At the time when they started Chef Boyardee, which was 1928, they were the largest importers of Parmesan cheese from Italy. And they also brought in, you know, tons of olive oil. And the reason why they went to Milton, Pennsylvania, for the factory was because they needed tomatoes.

NORRIS: They had to convince people to change their crops...

BOIARDI: Right.

NORRIS: ...so that they would have enough tomatoes.

BOIARDI: And at the height, when they were there, they were producing about 250,000 cans a day.

NORRIS: And they weren't just sold to consumers. At some point, the U.S. military stepped up and actually commissioned the company to produce Army rations.

BOIARDI: Then post-war is when they sold the company because it would have taken a lot of resources, and they felt that the best way to grow the company and to ensure that everyone that had been working there that they would continue to have jobs was to sell the company to a larger conglomerate that, you know, could offer some type of stability.

NORRIS: How do you reconcile these two ideas, the person who promotes organics and healthy eating and also the person whose name is on a label where sometimes it's on a pop-top and meant to be thrown into the microwave?

BOIARDI: What I do is I try to inspire people to cook for themselves, but, you know, I will say this, like even when I was growing up - and my mom is a fabulous cook - she would open up a can of Chef Boyardee for us also at, you know, certain nights when there just wasn't enough time and - but I do think it is important to know how to cook.

NORRIS: I - we can't get everything, obviously.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: But what I'd love to do is put together, is to quickly tick through...

BOIARDI: Yes.

NORRIS: ...a wonderful Boyardee meal based on the food that you present in the cookbook. And let's start with zucchini boats.

BOIARDI: Basically, what you do is, is that you would scoop out the pulp of the zucchini, and then you would cook that with a little olive oil and some breadcrumbs and some garlic. And then you would put it back into the center of the zucchini that you scooped out, and then you would bake it in the oven. And you would just get sort of like this savory baked zucchini, which is really a great side dish for anything that you're making in the summer.

NORRIS: And you just drizzle it with a little bit more olive oil when it comes out of the oven, very pretty dish.

BOIARDI: Well, thank you.

NORRIS: So after - that would be our starter course.

BOIARDI: Oh, OK.

NORRIS: And I thought a little pasta after that?

BOIARDI: OK.

NORRIS: And I was thinking about a pasta that comes up with a lovely story, the penne rigate with broccoli. And I love this because it's the dish you took to college with you.

BOIARDI: And actually, it's a good dish for kids also because they don't even think about the fact that they're eating vegetables. So if you have kids that are averse to eating anything green, this is it, a kid-tested recipe.

NORRIS: For those of you who are listening in your cars and wondering, what am I am having for dinner tonight?

BOIARDI: Uh-huh.

NORRIS: The recipes will be posted at our website. I was torn here, and you know that this is a region where you don't necessarily cook with a lot of meat and a lot of fish.

BOIARDI: Right.

NORRIS: And so I reached for chicken, but I couldn't decide whether to do the roast chicken that you brine with the vinegar...

BOIARDI: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...which seems so interesting or the Chicken Gabriella.

BOIARDI: I love a roast chicken.

NORRIS: The roast chicken it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOIARDI: One thing I do before I cook the chicken, to prop the chicken is we soak the chicken in apple cider vinegar, which was a trick that my grandmother had taught me. It gives it such a great flavor. And my grandmother used to use apple cider vinegar as a panacea. If you have a stomach ache or a headache, apple cider vinegar.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOIARDI: So it makes sense that it would have ended up in one of her recipes.

NORRIS: Thanks so much for being with us.

BOIARDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.