Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From artichoke to carciofi

I'm back... at least for now. Since I bought these today - 2 for $1.00 at Wegmans, this great store in Princeton, NJ where I am currently working - I've been inspired to contribute to my blog again so here goes.

Clue: They're strangely beautiful, like a tropical flower; bland and yet somewhat exotic in taste; and a bitch to clean and prepare with their thorny and tough outter leaves and inner choke. When I was a kid, my family were the only people I knew who ate them, always stuffed with breadcrumbs and covered in tomato sauce. My friends gaped at them in awe demanding to know just what they were while I scraped the stuffing and soft layer from each leaf with my front teeth to reach that creamy concentrated burst of flavor buried in the heart. Yeah, they mighta choked Artie but, like Stymie, they weren't gonna choke me. 

Give up? If you guessed artichokes, you were right. Even though we always ate them the same way, I loved artichokes then and I love them more now and I have my life in Italy to thank for that.

In the motherland, artichokes are not just artichokes - they're "carciofi," pronounced car-choe-fee, a word that sounds just like what they might do if the preparer doesn't take care.  But there's nary a choke in those equisite carciofi, regardless of whether they're Roman or Jerusalem. When I saw Italian artichokes for the first time, my husband and I were visiting his aunt in Sicily and there were a bunch of them, "un mazzetto," propped in a bucket of water on her terrazzo, long-stemmed and full flowered, like peonies about to bloom. Aside from their "cuter" look, they were softer than the artichokes I was used to - those outter leaves weren't so thick, tough or thorny in Italy so although cleaning them was time consuming and a "bitch" as I lovingly say, the process was precise, helping to create a pretty perfect dish that was always worth the work. And once that part of the preparation was complete, the rest was usually a piece of cake because in Italy, carciofi are made in so many ways, each one more delicious than the next, far exceeding our traditional stuffed and sauced variety.

The first kind of carciofi I made were Roman style which I learned, among other things, in the Regional Italian Cooking Class, Lazio Region, I took through the American Women's Club of Rome.  These classes met once a week for the entire day, a different region for each class spanning over a couple of months for the northern regions, a couple of months for the south, and it was quite an excursion! On cooking days, I'd put my kids on the school bus and my friend would borrow my husband's BMW, (I couldn't drive stick), to drive us the 45-60 minutes north of Rome to Lake Bracciano. The ride would often include us crying over the heart wrenching Italian music playing on the radio,even if we didn't understand all the words, stopping along the side of the road to buy "cheap" porcini or making a detour for an always perfect cappuccino in a ceramic cup! We didn't dilly dally much though because we were anxious meet with the other students and instructors to learn about the history of the week's particular region, follow the recipes to work in teams preparing various specialties and then spending the rest of the day sitting at a beautifully set table eating the dishes we cooked, sampling the wines of the region for each course, while surrounded by the beautiful scenery and distinct smells of the food, the lake around the restaurant, and Italy in general. No matter what you think, Italy does smell differently from New York and every once in a while, I get a whiff of Rome as I stroll up Fifth Ave. that makes me want to just stand perfectly still while my mind wanders back 15 years... 

But back to the artichokes, thanks to the Lake Bracciano cooking classes, cleaning artichokes became a science to me that I use to this day:
  • take off the tough, dark, outter leaves (and there weren't many),
  • cut the top of the artichoke to discard the thorny tips and the stem, discarding the 1/4" at the end of the stem.
  • Pull the artichoke open and use a demitasse spoon to remove the choke, (again, not much there)
  • rub the cut leaves and the base with a lemon and put both the artichoke and cut stem into a pot with acidulated water while cleaning the rest of the artichokes.
So did the many different ways to prepare them. At Lake Bracciano, I learned how to cook Roman style carciofi, stuffed with pancetta and mint. But that wasn't where it stopped - in restaurants I had delicious and light homemade fettuccine noodles with artichokes and cream; risotto with sauteed artichokes, and best of all, carciofi alla guidia - deep fried and smashed with the back of a wooden spoon, drained and fried again artichokes that, with just the right amount of sea salt, just dissolve in your mouth with eat bite. I never did muster up the stamina to cook those but they are the first thing I want when I touch down on Italy's hollowed ground.

Well, I have 6 artichokes waiting to be cleaned and cooked, a $3.00 investment. I'm doing them Roman style.

Carciofi alla Romana
4 artichokes
2 1/2" slices of round pancetta
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 T. chopped mint
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Water to almost cover

Prepare the artichokes as I now do regularly, described above.
Slice the pancetta and cut it crosswise to make small cubes
Randomly stuff the pancetta into the artichoke leaves, pulling the artichoke open. Do the same with the chopped garlic and mint.

Put the artichokes into a pot large enough to hold all four in an upright position. When the stem is removed, the artichokes should remain flat in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil and wine over the artichokes and fill water halfway up the artichokes. Cover and let boil; then lower heat and cook till tender, adding more water if needed.

NOTE: Cut the artichokes into quarters and sautee in a frying pan with all the same ingredients, replacing the mint with parsley. While simmering, add the prepackaged cream sauce, panna, found in Italian specialty shops and deli's. Toss this sauce with pasta.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hello out there!

Dear Followers, Fellow Bloggers, Friends, Relatives, Browsers, and Search Engine Optimizers,

If you are reading this, I now know you are out there still so I think it's time to explain the whole blog concept to you all. I share a topic (in this case my recipes), and spend a lot of time coming up with the appropriate recipes, photos and obviously the whole story behind them. You, in return, either keep coming back to find out all these secrets about me and my crazy family or because you like to cook and try new recipes.  You can give the recipes to someone you know who likes to cook or you can cook them yourself to show off to your friends and family. Whatever your motive, I'm not looking for royalties, or a by-line or even a formal "thank you" in return but, as is the purpose of a blog, I would like to hear from you now and then. If I post a survey, how about giving me an answer? And posting a comment isn't as tough as it looks - just click on the "0 Comments" link at the end of the post and a page will open with no comments displayed and a form where you can tell me what you think of me or the recipe you tried out. SNAP!

I've been having fun with this blog but lately, I'm feeling lonely. Since I've pretty much borrowed the entire concept from Julie and Julia, I might as well quote her: Hello? Is anyone out there?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Morning

It's 8:30PM Saturday night before Easter. I'm 13, Mindy is 8, Stephen 5. My sister and I are in our bedroom smelling the asparagus, scallions and dried sausage sauteeing downstairs in the kitchen. Our new Easter outfits, shoes, hats, and underwear have been laid out on our dresser earlier in the day by my mother who has spent the last several days baking cookies and preparing the pizza rustica which we happily sampled earlier that morning. My brother is still bouncing off the walls, pleading with me and Mindy to let him into our room, as my father yells at him to "leave [us] girls alone" and go to bed. Soon the vacuum will be whirring and we will all be lulled to sleep, visions of chocolate bunnies, licorice jelly beans, and marshmallow eggs dancing in our heads!

As Easter morning breaks and we dress for 8AM mass, we tear into the baskets that the bunny has brought us through the very capable hands of my mother (and father), and sample a piece of bunny here, a jelly bean there. My mother gets the holiday spirit rolling with shrieks of reprimand for the chocolate she smells on my brother's breath, pins the corsages onto Mindy's, mine and her own spring coats, and we are off to church. I pray God forgives me for what I am about to admit but throughout the hour that the congregation is rejoicing over Christ's resurrection, I'm only noticing the color of Bonnie's dress, Anne's new shoes and Kathy's hat and thinking about the delicacies that are awaiting. And here's the bigger sacrilege: in spite of the delicious, aromatic, vinegar and garlic basted leg of lamb with accompanying greasy potatoes that is our usual Easter lunch, breakfast is the best part of the day!

Once back at home, the dining table welcomes us with a pink linen table cloth, fresh tulips, dyed eggs and Grandma's Easter bread and babies. Mom immediately heads for the kitchen and, using last night's sauteed asparagus, scallions and sausage, as well as cubed mozzarella, ricotta and lots of eggs, begins preparing our frittata - an Italian omelet reserved just for this holiday. Meanwhile, my father gets the coffee perking and I bring all the other Easter goodies to the table, like the dishes of diagonally-sliced homemade sausage, pizza ghiende (commonly known as pizza rustica), birds nest cookies and apricot pastries, while Stephen and Mindy continue to munch on the contents of their baskets. After half an hour or so, some champagne and oj and an Easter basket down, the weeks of chopping, stuffing, drying, rolling, twisting are finally fulfilled. As a joyous family, we proceed to the dining room to enjoy our breakfast feast.

Fast forward about 15 years: Mindy is 25, Stephen 22 and I'm 30 with 2 kids, ages 3 and 1. Although I'm not hosting Easter breakfast, I made the pizza rustica on Good Friday, a tradition I uphold to this day, managed the construction of 2 Easter baskets, vacuumed the entire 4 rooms of my house, purchased the girls' dresses, hats, ruffled socks and maryjane shoes (at Lord and Taylor!) and dressed them both, pinning on corsages, in time to meet my parents and sister at 8AM mass. Once again, I am occupied throughout the hour with Noelle's squirming, Jessica's hat falling off and thoughts of our traditional Easter breakfast. When we get to my parents' house, I hold the girls off with a piece of bread from their very own Easter baby while my mother works her magic with the frittata. My  sister and her fiance (now my brother-in-law) are serving the champagne and OJ, bringing the sausage and cookies to the table as my kids open their baskets of goodies from Grammy and Poppy's Easter bunny. And Stephen is nowhere to be found.

Over the years since he was a child rebutting my mother's fashion advice,  Stephen has creatively managed to evade the Easter church police posing as our parents so it's no surprise that he is MIA now. But just as I get Noelle settled into her highchair and Jessica's V-8 juice is served, just as my mother starts serving the frittata and we are about to take our first delicious bite, my brother comes pounding down the stairs, with the family Newfoundland/Lab, "Max," in tow, loudly singing his crass versions of otherwise popular songs, and all is lost. Jessica gets out of her seat, running to the stairs to meet her "Stevie Wonder"; Noelle starts squirming, whining, begging to be let loose to join the fun that is Stephen. All decorum is lost; all the weeks of preparation, shot to hell as quickly as you can say Peter Cottontail. Because in spite of the fact that my brother, like my sister, parents and in-laws, has a huge Easter basket for my kids, he has not one shred of Easter tradition in his bones. As he comes into the dining room, teasing and taunting everyone in his path, including my sweet old grandmother, he is dressed in his Easter finest: no shirt, no shoes, black and white striped boxers and his omnipresent "fro." Perhaps he is still rebelling for being forced to wear those suits with short pants or perhaps he's just the Easter grinch, a charlatan in fun uncle clothes. I believe the latter for with not an ounce of shame, he sits at the head of the table and chows down, critiquing every morsel along the way, throwing black jelly beans at my sister, demanding 16oz refills of iced water from my mother, tossing the ball in the living room to Max, singing Bad Boys with Jessica, taking the food out from a shocked Noelle. And so our Easter begins….

Here’s hoping yours is calmer or at least made a little bit funnier, definitely more interesting and hopefully tastier since reading this story from our crazy family's past. To thank you for bearing with us, I share our prized Easter recipe.

Pizza Rustica (aka “Ghiende”)
Pillsbury pie crusts (2) or double recipe of pastry dough
18 eggs beaten with grated locatelli cheese
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 lb of thick sliced prosciutto, cut into pieces
1-1/2lb fresh mozzarella (in water) cut into cubes
1 large packaged mozzarella, cubed
1-1/2 lbs. fresh sausage, browned and sliced in rounds

-Make the pastry dough or roll out one sheet of pie crust for the bottom of a large rectangular roasting pan.
- Beat the eggs in two batches in a blender with cheese
- Pour into a bowl and mix with the other ingredients. Then pour into the roasting pan.
- Top with the other rolled out pie crust.
- Brush with beaten egg and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight.