The Art (& Heart) of Artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

I wish I could remember the first time I understood an artichoke. It must have been early on because you would think that first encounter would be memorable. I should ask my mom: when did I first eat an artichoke?

And what a name. Artie Choke.  (Remind me to use that for a character in a story or play I will write.) And in Italian it’s even more fun: carciofo. Either way it’s the thistle I love.

How many times have you wondered: who ever figured out how to eat it? What other food do you throw most of it away? While you’re busy getting at its “core” which is its delectable gold? (Well, okay, a clam comes to mind.)

In my Italian-American family we had 2 ways of making them. Braised-boiled plain with garlic and parsley.

plain cooked artichokes

plain cooked artichokes

Or stuffed with flavored breadcrumb packed between the leaves. And braise-boiled.  We thought of the plain style as Sicilian (my Dad would only eat them that way). And the other style…Napolitana? Maybe.

stuffed artichokes

stuffed artichokes

I used to like just plain. Now I like stuffed. But frankly, I’ll eat them any way you can imagine. Have you had the Roman Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style)? The artichokes are smashed flat and deep-fried. If you ever have the chance… ORDER THAT.

How to begin:

Cut off the top third…and the stem at the bottom. I often use a large bread knife to get through the tough leaves.

cut off the top of the artichoke

cut off the top of the artichoke

Snip the outer leaves that have thorns so you don’t get “stuck.”

snip off the thorns

snip off the thorns

I rinse them under cool water while trying to open them a little with some gentle pulls. Then shake them out to get rid of the drip-drops. Here’s my current favorite stuffing: panko, minced garlic, minced parsley, raisins and pine nuts.

stuffing ingredients

stuffing ingredients

Mix that up and drizzle a little olive oil to moisten. Season with salt and pepper.

filling

filling

Pile a handful of stuffing on top then pull open leaves here and there getting the mixture to drop in. Or just push it in. But go easy, you don’t want to break the leaves. It’s a balancing act. Open the leaves…don’t break the leaves. The enigma of artichoke-stuffing.

stuffing artichokes

stuffing artichokes

Set them upright in a pot with a little heft to it (they will be simmering for a while). Add water till about halfway up the artichokes. Then drizzle olive oil on top of them and some for the water, too. Season the whole thing with salt.

artichokes in the pot

artichokes in the pot

Heat till the liquid starts boiling, then lower to a simmer. I set a cover on askew. Cook for 40 minutes to an hour. If you can pull a leaf off easily they are done. I like the hearts to get real tender.

Alternate tip. My mom is not a big garlic-in-your-food fan. She’ll smash a clove to start a tomato sauce, but then take it out before serving (it’s a common Italian move). So for less garlic impact, instead of adding minced garlic to the stuffing, just add some crushed cloves to the cooking water.

Don’t know how to eat an artichoke? Here’s a primer (I wish I could draw diagrams). Pick off the leaves (one by one), scrape off the bit of heart-meat at the bottom tip with your teeth. Yum. You can’t eat the whole leaf because it’s tough. As you get deeper into the artichoke the leaves get more tender and you can eat the whole leaf. Continue until you reach the spiky small leaves at the center. Scrape them away along with the fuzzy “choke” covering the heart at the bottom. Then you have the heart. You gotta have heart. And you especially gotta eat this whole entire heart.

Also. Those stems you cut off? If you want to get meticulous, there’s a little bit of heart in those, too. It’s the white center.

there's even heart in the stem

there’s even heart in the stem

You can trim the stringy green all around the white center and drop the trimmed stem into the cooking liquid surrounded by its big brothers.

heart in the stem

heart in the stem

It’s just an added hit of yummy heart.

When I shared an apartment with my pal, Ginger, back in my theatre days, we ate artichokes all the time. She’s from California so she was as artichoke-crazy as me (you know, Castroville CA is the artichoke capital of the US). Her version was to boil them, then dip the leaves in melted butter as you nibbled. That’s another happy choice.

Once we drove into NYC to see a Broadway play (we lived in Huntington and worked at PAF Playhouse). Since we were budget-conscious we brought our dinner with us to eat in the car before the show. I have a dim memory-short-movie of us in the front seat of her VW van, in the dark, parked on a city street, hungrily scraping the leaves of our artichokes. But I have no idea what play we went to see.

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

Backstage at PAF Playhouse with 2 other PAF-ites: Christine & Bill. (Me, on the right.) Quite likely I had an artichoke for dinner.

Fav Nashville Eats: Beacon Light Tea Room (Bon Aqua)

On the Road

Beacon Light Tea Room w Duane

Last Sunday, when the first spring air breezed on by, we decided to drive miles away. In the opposite direction of downtown. We wanted to be in the middle of lots of new spring greenery, feel the warm open air, trace the avenues of not-our-usual Sunday. And have breakfast.

So we went to the Beacon Light Tea Room in Hickman County.

Beacon Light Teahouse

Beacon Light Tea Room

We’d been there once before a few years ago. On a Sunday. For breakfast. It’s a drive but the ride is smooth on Highway 100 and there’s enough to entertain out the windows along the way.

For us Sunday breakfast is around noon or 1 o’ clock. And we usually want eggs.

The Beacon Light Tearoom is the place for eggs. They serve them all day long with their full menu of serious eats. The Beacon is also the place for biscuits. And for the trimmings that go with eggs. Like bacon. Ham. Sausage patties. Hash browns. And homemade jam for biscuits.

Beacon Biscuits

Beacon Biscuits

What I love about the biscuits is their saltiness. Yep. They got a saltiness. Which makes the jam you put on them *POP* with yum-ful taste.

Beacon Biscuits w Jam

Beacon Biscuits w Jam

Scrambled eggs are rich. Almost creamy. My plate of breakfast arrived from Central Casting. A movie star.

Beacon Scrambled Eggs

Beacon Scrambled Eggs

Duane’s eggs over easy with sawmill gravy and sausage patties beamed happily… congratulating him for requesting this perfect combo.

w sawmill gravy

w sawmill gravy

The Beacon Light Tea Room started out in 1936 across the street from where a lighthouse stood to guide prop planes around the area. The Beacon thanks the Loveless for following in their footsteps and keeping up the country cooking tradition.

The Beacon Story

The Beacon Story

The Beacon Light Tea Room is the smaller, less Disney version of the Loveless. It’s sincerely un-fancy; authentically homegrown.

sign at the door

sign at the door

road sign

road sign

And, for us, a perfect destination when the wheels of the car need to roll around new territory. And when our brains need to be swept of cobwebs. And when our palates are longing for straightforward delicious.

on the road

on the road

along the road

along the road

(The Inevitable) Sausage and Peppers

sausage and peppers. you know you love it.

sausage and peppers. you know you love it.

It’s the quintessential Italian-American classic. Grilled, broiled, or pan-fried Italian sausages, with sautéed peppers and onions. The flavor (and the aroma) are exactly what it means to be Italian-American. It’s the “national” dish of the immigrants from Italy (especially Southern Italy) who made their home here in the “New” World.

For me, sausage and peppers originate on Mulberry Street during the San Gennaro Festival. The length of Mulberry Street is blocked to traffic. Arches of red and green lights shimmer over the pavement. Sidewalks are lined with overflowing food counters cooking and selling pizza, zeppole, cannoli, calzone, and sausage and peppers.

San Gennaro photo by Ed Yourdan via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/15402247580/in/set-72157648479562970

San Gennaro photo by Ed Yourdan via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/15402247580/in/set-72157648479562970

I think I must have been a teenager when I first pushed through those crowds. A group of us with a bottle of red wine in a brown paper bag in tow. Of course, I’ve been back many times throughout my NYC life, but in my later years it was actually a festival to avoid. Crowded. Touristy. The same ole, same ole.

San Gennaro photo by Ed Yourdan via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/15402247580/in/set-72157648479562970

San Gennaro photo by Ed Yourdan via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/15402247580/in/set-72157648479562970

But that doesn’t stop memories from glowing. And the sense-memory of downtown NYC air permeated with sizzling sausage, peppers and onions on a flattop–the ghost-taste of San Gennaro–gets me right into the kitchen to make some at home. An irresistible “gotta-have-it” urge.

When the urge strikes, I want this dish to cook fast. Here’s the fastest way I know how.

Slice 2-3 sweet peppers– red, green, orange, yellow, what you prefer. I think green has always been the standard, but I’m a fan of the other colors (green peppers have a lot more punch). And slice 2 medium onions. We’re looking for thin wedge-like slices.

cut up peppers & onions

cut up peppers & onions

Saute in a large saute pan with a little olive oil until softened. About 10-15 minutes. You don’t want it to cook forever because the peppers and onions will really start melting and attempt to disappear. Season with salt & pepper.

Meanwhile, get the oven to about 400 degrees. Poke 4-5 sausages in a few spots with a paring knife. Place them on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast until browned well on each side.

Sausages half-way browned

Sausages half-way browned

When they are cooked through, cut them in half with a diagonal cut. Add them to the already softened peppers and onions…

sautéed peppers and onions

sautéed peppers and onions

Let the sausages hang out in there for about 5 minutes or so (as you sauté on medium heat) until everyone gets acquainted and the flavors decide to get married. Then you’re ready to indulge. Of course, on Mulberry Street they will pile this concoction on a big Italian hero roll. I take the trying-to-avoid-bread-so-I-can-still-fit-into-my-jeans route. And just eat this wonder on a dish. Up to you!

sausage and peppers without the roll

sausage and peppers without the roll

My Tasting Spoons

my tasting spoons

my tasting spoons

I never intended to have a gaggle of tasting spoons. They just sprouted into a collection over the years.

I’m such a fan of “little.” Small bowls, small plates, small glasses. I like bites rather than gulps. Espresso in a demitasse cup rather than a mug of American. And that’s just where this started. I had 2 demitasse spoon collections. These spoons were my go-to tools for tasting or stirring small amounts. In stores and food markets and flea markets I always get drawn into sets of small spoons. And forks. Those seafood forks or appetizer forks. Everything seems to sparkle more when smaller. And sparkle cuter.

Now in my cooking classes, the little spoons and forks are engaged throughout class to taste our concoctions. Students have been inspired to start their own collections.

Of course over the years I’ve lost a few here and there so now my assortment is a ragtag mismatched bunch. Here are the last remnants from my first two demitasse spoon sets.

my oldest demitasse spoons

my oldest demitasse spoons

I think my mom had given them to me. The one with the red color in the handle was part of a set where each spoon had a different dot of color. I love these little guys but now only have one. (Do they fall down the drain of the sink?) The longer one is my favorite for making a quick vinaigrette (drizzle a few rounds of olive oil in a small bowl, add some salt & pepper, a few tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice – or both – and about 2 tablespoons of grated parmigiano- whisk vigorously with a little spoon until combined).

I think these colorful plastic spoons are meant for ice cream.

plastic ice cream spoons

plastic ice cream spoons

There was a set of six originally, but somehow three got spirited away — my favs are lost: the red, the yellow, the dark blue. They’re from that fun store that used to be in Grand Central Station (can’t remember the name) with whisks that had doll heads and staplers shaped like crocodiles. When I last lived in NY I lived in Spuyten Duyvil, Bronx and took the commuter rail at Grand Central to get home. While waiting for my train, I usually browsed this store, or ate a slice of pizza from Two Boots (thin with a crunch of corn meal).

These are plastic, too, and from Eataly in NYC.

spoons from Eatlaly

spoons from Eatlaly

There used to be six of them (where DO these spoons get lost to??). They’re so tiny but I find myself grabbing them first for tasting the tomato sauce or the crazy grits I make every Monday morning (crazy because they’re filled with an assortment of chopped leftovers) or stirring my caffe latte in the morning. My mom has a set of red ones. She still has all six.

When the spoons run out in class (because we taste, then throw the spoon in the sink) we move on to small forks. This is the only fork left from a set I bought at a flea market in Madrid, Spain.

fork from Madrid, Spain

fork from Madrid, Spain

I spent a week in Madrid after doing a stint with an archaeological team in Burgos, Spain. We were digging up the stage of an ancient Roman theatre. In the Madrid flea market I bought a pretty belt that was several looped chains together (perfect for the belly dance classes I used to take), a set of these tiny forks, and a set of tiny spoons. Only the fork remains. (I can’t seem to find the belt either.)

I love these scalloped-bowled spoons from an antique store on Cape Cod.

scalloped spoons

scalloped spoons

I don’t use these for tasting. They come to the table to accompany condiment dishes, like the extra grated cheese for pasta or the arugula-pine nut pesto to go with the pork tenderloin or cocktail sauce for shrimp. There was always just the two.

Not sure where these two came from but I love their soup-spoon-like shape.

soup spoon-shaped

soup spoon-shaped

There’s a restaurant store in town. Half the warehouse is filled with the contents of old restaurants. The other half, new appliances and tools. I got this set for just $2 there!

restaurant store set

restaurant store set

These forks were from TJ Maxx…

TJ Maxx forks

TJ Maxx forks

And these my mom gave me a million years ago…

seafood forks

seafood forks

I put them out when we’re having clams on the half shell, but no one uses them, they just slurp.

Speaking of TJ Maxx. I find all kinds of Italian imports in their housewares section. Beautifully painted ceramic dishes and bowls. And even pasta tools and colanders. I found these Italian tiny wooden spoons at TJ Maxx.

Italian wooden spoons

Italian wooden spoons

They had a tag in Italian telling of the type of wood and where they’re from (tag is gone and I don’t remember!), and a rustic string that held them all together by the holes in the handles.

My friend Peggy Cosgrave gave me the little cauldron where I keep the spoons.

Peggy's cauldron

Peggy’s cauldron

It doesn’t have a flat bottom so it tends to rock from side to side. But now that my spoon-fork collection barely fits in there, the copper cauldron stays pretty steady.

Oh, and I just found these at the dollar store yesterday. Packs of tiny spoons and tiny forks.

dollar store spoons and forks

dollar store spoons and forks

They’re really thin plastic made to look like silver flatware. I won’t add these to the collection but they’ll get used somehow. They just look so cute in the package!

How to Make Stovetop Espresso Coffee

The Joys of Espresso

The Joys of Espresso

My first encounter with stovetop espresso was in Rome in the late 1970’s. I shared an apartment with Grazia Enrica Brunelli in the neighborhood of Trastevere. Enrica, a quintessential Roman, made stovetop espresso every morning. That’s where I learned it. That’s where it became part of my morning routine. With its aroma and distinctive flavor, I bring Rome with me wherever I go. One sip and the Roman air swirls around me. I can hear the vespas speed by the window. I can elicit the unique aura that only umbrella pines and ancient ruins can muster into the atmosphere.

Rome: umbrella pines and ruins

Rome: umbrella pines and ruins

Bring Italy home for yourself. Here’s how to make the coffee. Then let your imagination channel the rest of Rome into your morning. Evening. Afternoon. This elixir summons any part of Italy into your immediate realm.

And it’s easy to do.

I have a small collection of espresso pots. (And 1 napolitana pot.)

espresso and napolitana pots

espresso and napolitana pots

They are easy to find online, in housewares stores, TJ Maxx, too. But do make sure you get one that is made in Italy. There are some impostors running around that are Made in China (with Italian names on the labels). I haven’t encountered one China-made espresso pot that is worth getting. The most popular Italian-made pot is Bialetti Moka-Express. Look for the little man pointing above his head.

Bialetti Moka-Express

Bialetti Moka-Express

You’ll find different sizes. When they say 6-cup or 4-cup remember they are talking espresso size, the size of 6 or 4 espresso “shots.” So choose accordingly. Families keep these pots for generations. There’s a rubber washer inside that can be replaced if the original deteriorates (that might take more than 20 years!). Even if the black handles break off, people keep them since the pot still works fine without it (use a bigger pot holder to handle).

How to make stovetop espresso: Unscrew the pot. Take out the metal filter nestled in the bottom.

unscrew the espresso pot

unscrew the espresso pot

Fill the bottom with cold water up to the metal steam hole. Place the metal filter in, and fill the filter with espresso coffee.

coffee in filter

coffee in filter

IMPORTANT: for the best flavor use Italian espresso coffee. It’s roasted darker than French roast and delivers that characteristic flavor. I like the brand Lavazza.

Lavazza coffee

Lavazza coffee

Screw the top onto the pot tightly. Too loose and water will steam out of the sides instead of up through the ground coffee. Place pot on your stovetop burner, gas or electric. I try to place it so that the handle is not over the heat.

espresso pot on stove

espresso pot on stove

I set the burner on high or medium high. Stay by and watch. The water in the bottom of the pot will heat up, boil, and push up thru the coffee (“espress”) and perk out thru the hole in the top of the pot, filling the top of the pot with finished coffee.

coffee spouting

coffee spouting

When the water starts hissing and pushing up, I usually lower the heat some. Turn off heat or remove pot when the top is almost full so that it doesn’t boil over.

Be careful handling the hot pot. Pour your espresso.

pour your espresso

pour your espresso

 

Add milk if you like (you can warm the milk first, that’s how Enrica did it. I have usually have less patience and just add a bit of cold milk.) (I also like sugar!)

pouring milk

pouring milk

Ecolo! Il caffe tuo e pronto, signora, signore, signorina, ragazze!

When cleaning your pot (wait until it’s cool enough to handle), just rinse it well, you don’t need to use soap. These pots get “seasoned” and the residual coffee oils add to its personality. I once lent a pot to a neighbor and it came back shiny clean. They thought they were doing me a favor!

Now you might be interested in the other stovetop Italian coffee method using the pot known as “napolitana”…which means Naples-style.

napolitana pot

napolitana pot

This style is similar to a drip pot but you’re still using espresso coffee. The coffee it creates is a little smoother than the other espresso–not so intense.

Take the pot apart.

napolitana pot

napolitana pot

Fill the bottom (the half without the spout) with water up to the little hole. Unscrew the filter and fill with coffee.

coffee in napolitana filter

coffee in napolitana filter

Screw top on filter and place filter, coffee end up, into the water of the bottom half.

filter in napolitana pot

filter in napolitana pot

Push the spout half on top, lining up the handles, and place on the burner (keep handles away from heat and they’ll stay cool for handling).

napolitana pot on stove

napolitana pot on stove

Listen for the subtle bubbling sound signaling the water inside is almost boiling. Shut the heat and carefully turn the pot upside down, so the spout half is on the bottom. The hot water will drip through the filter. This will take about 3 minutes, so wait for it to brew…then enjoy!

Here’s another pot I have. It’s a “2-cup” but just enough to fill my tiny mug. I love making my own little pot of espresso. This pot my aunt brought back from Sicily. Buon caffe!

1-serving pot

1-serving pot

Fav Nashville Eats: Noshville

Noshville, Nashville

Noshville, Nashville

I can’t remember ever eating matzoh ball soup in my 30 years of living in NYC. But it’s my standard order at Noshville here in Nashville. And it’s delicious.

matzoh ball soup w tuna sandwich

matzoh ball soup w tuna sandwich

Here’s the sad part. Noshville on Broadway in Midtown is closing by the end of the year. A high-rise is going to push over the popular, busy, comfort destination– grabbing its footprint, and the rest of the buildings on the block, including Manuel’s former design headquarters, and JJ’s Market (a cafe full of relaxed people gazing at their computers while sipping coffee or beer amidst the eclectic collection of tables and chairs).

bye bye Noshville's block

bye-bye Noshville’s block

Do I need to mention that Midtown is already overly-jammed with businesses and cars (without parking spaces)? And now more opportunistic landscape transformation will wave bye-bye to history and old friends. They do say that Noshville will return in the new grand 17-story tower– but it will take about 3 years. I’ll believe it when I see it. Noshville in Green Hills will still thrive– 1/3 the size of its more bustling sibling. Here’s what I’ll miss: I’ll miss sitting at the counter hearing the latest from one of our favorite servers, Linda. At that counter we’re usually elbow to elbow with Vandy students and professors on a Sunday afternoon sipping mimosa’s or bloody mary’s with eggs over easy, toasted bagels, and reuben sandwiches.

Noshville counter

Noshville counter

I’ll miss that standard order of mine: Noshville’s “soup & sandwich”…matzoh ball soup (small bowl comes with 1 large matzoh ball) and a half tuna sandwich on rye toast. It’s a perfect meal.

tuna on rye toast

tuna on rye toast

I’ll miss the mini potato pancakes that accompany eggs (mine, scrambled soft with Canadian bacon). And Duane and I have a new favorite: the “salad sampler” with scoops of coleslaw, tuna salad, chicken salad, or egg salad.

salad sampler at Noshville

salad sampler at Noshville

Another of Duane’s regular orders is the chili dog. My mom goes for the hot pastrami sandwich. My sister, the open turkey sandwich with gravy on the side (French fries for her, instead of mashed potatoes). I’ll miss the “amuse bouche” pickles that we always feel funny troubling our server to bring us, until we discovered a couple of months ago that we can go get them ourselves from the huge bin of pickles with stacks of bowls and tongs nearby. We crunch and slurp up a bowl of these once-barreled-on-Delancy-Street favorites.

pickles

pickles

I’ll miss the wall photos of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, Sinatra and Sammy and Dean, and NYC-centric movie posters.

breakfast at Noshville

breakfast at Noshville

I’ll miss the slabs of lox and the carousel of cakes. I’ll miss our usual hang. Our comfy place. Our old reliable. When Noshville is reborn in a new modern building in some year in the future I wonder if (and hope) it can bring back all the spirit and personality it has naturally originated over the years.

Noshville booths

Noshville booths

Yes, we like the food. But it’s the atmosphere, too, that makes us want to be there.

Noshville tables

Noshville tables

St. Joseph’s Day Cakes

St. Joseph cake

St. Joseph cake

March 19th is Saint Joseph’s Day. Time to move on from Patrick and celebrate Saint Joseph and anyone whose name is Joseph. This is your day!

For the last few years I’ve been wanting to make Saint Joseph cakes. Individual-sized pastries luscious and creamy. But then March 19th would come and go and there I’d be with no cake. Not this year. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I’ve eaten them in NY, where you can find them at Italian bakeries. But how do you make them?

I scanned the Web for recipes. I discovered there’s more than one way to make a St. Joseph’s cake. Most recipes used a pate a choux batter. But you can fry the cakes or bake them. Stuff them with whipped cream. Or ricotta. Or a combination of both. Or stuff them with custard cream. Which one is right? Which one authentic? I couldn’t find the answer. Maybe they’re all correct. Each baker with their own authentic recipe.

So I made an executive decision (being the CEO of my own kitchen). I’m gonna use my pate a choux recipe and my custard cream recipe and make St. Joseph cakes!

First make the custard since it needs to be chilled. 5 egg yolks 3/4 cup sugar…

egg yolks and sugar

egg yolks and sugar

Beat with the paddle attachment until pale and thick…

pale and thick

pale and thick

Beat in 3 tablespoons of corn starch. On the stove heat 1 1/2 cups of milk to scalding. Slowly add hot milk to the egg mixture while machine runs on low. Then return the whole mixture back to the pot and heat on medium, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thick. About 5-7 minutes. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and about 1/4 cup rum. Pour into a bowl and place plastic wrap on top of the custard surface. Chill in the refrigerater until cooled.

custard

custard

Now make the pate a choux.

pate a choux ingredients

pate a choux ingredients

In a medium saucepan heat 1 cup of water, 6 tablespoons of butter and a healthy pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Then take off the heat and whisk in 1 cup of flour till combined well. Put pot back on the heat and switch to wooden spoon. Stir rapidly until dough is dry and leaves the sides of the pan easily.

dough in pan

dough in pan

Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on low for a few minutes to cool down the dough. Then add 4 eggs, one at a time until each is incorporated.

pate a choux batter

pate a choux batter

Now the fun part. Get out your piping bag with a large star tip. Pipe a 2-inch circle and swirl back into the center.

piped dough

piped dough

Bake at 425 for about 15 -20 minutes until puffed. Turn down oven to 350 and bake until deep golden, about another 10 minutes. Once out of the oven I poke each pastry with a toothpick to allow steam to escape. Let cool completely. Then cut in half horizontally and fill with custard cream. Sprinkle some powdered sugar on top.

St. Joseph Cake with custard cream

St. Joseph Cake with custard cream

Yes. You’re allowed more than one. Especially if your name is Joseph.